Final report for FS19-312
The greatest problem we have faced as a small dairy is the cost, quality and availability of feed (primarily hay or alfalfa) for our goats. Located in West Texas, pasturing for goats is problematic. The land is dry, arid and prone to long periods of drought. Predators are abundant so we must keep our goats close to our farm. Growing traditional feeds of grass or alfalfa is prohibitive because of the lack of rain fall. Any crop would need to be on regular irrigation which would be a strain on our farm’s well.
Being dependent on the local feed stores for our alfalfa has made our business difficult. For the past 10 years of our business we have struggled with the disproportionate cost of attaining good quality feed in relationship to our narrow profit margin. Being in such a remote location, we are apt to get feed that is not fresh or even poor quality at exorbitant prices. Several years ago when there was a severe drought in the region we were barely able to attain feed during the winter. Some of it was so old and moldy that the animals refused to eat it. Handling old hay/alfalfa actually has created a health problem for us. The constant exposure to the moldy hay causes allergies and even histoplasmosis. We have to often wear protective masks while feeding the goats.
Finding an alternative feed source has not been the solution. Even when we sought out buying the alfalfa wholesale and bringing it in on an 18 wheeler from a farm 80 miles away, we still faced some of the same problems of cost and quality.
Good clean milk from goats eating high quality feed go hand in hand with producing a fine cheese. What our animals eat directly affects the flavor of our product. Goats are naturally more “browsers” than “grazers.” West Texas is not known for it’s tree and edible shrub offerings.
We were introduced to a shrub/tree by a fellow goat dairy (Pure Luck Dairy in Dripping Springs) called Tagasaste or Tree Lucerne that originates from the Canary Islands, but is grown widespread as a fodder in Australia and New Zealand. Our friend propagated it successfully and has started feeding it to her goats. She attained seeds and shared several varieties with us. We have also propagated them in a small quantity and have transplanted seedlings in a small area. Our first attempts to grow tagasaste have been promising. We have plants going through the first winter which should tell us their survivability in this climate.
Tagasaste or Tree Lucerne is an evergreen, fast growing plant that can reach 15-20 feet in 6 years. It is a nitrogen-fixing legume plant that has similar protein and food values as alfalfa. It can grow for up to 60 years providing a life-long food source for cows, sheep, horses or goats. It is drought-resistant and can survive weather extremes such as heat, strong winds, frost or cold. As an added benefit, it can be used as a wind break and fire break.
The tree can be grazed on directly and in fact, needs to be eaten down to continue to produce the most nutritious food. It can also be eaten without danger of bloat, an issue with dairy goats. It is, in fact, a vertical green haystack.
What makes it perfect for West Texas is that once the plants are established, after the first year and a half, they develop deep tap roots and don’t need watering. This means they could survive our periods of drought and severe weather.
The results of the project are at this point somewhat inconclusive. We have grown the tagasaste sucessfully and transplanted it sucessfully. The one thing we cannot control is the weather. The plants that were ultimately grown sucessfully and planted were made to edure a difficult winter for West Texas. It is not unusual for temperatures to dip into the teens and its also not unusual to have ice and snow. The winter of 2020-21 had more than a few severe weather events with a final winter storm in February that had near zero night time temps combined with wind and ice. We are waiting to see if our protection of the plants was adequate and if the plants do survive we will feel a level of success.
The strategy is to plant in rows that create a micro-climate and provide shelter from wind and sun. Tagasaste will bring moisture through the roots as well as provide shade to keep moisture from evaporating. The plants will also produce nitrogen that enriches the soil to encourage grasses to grow between the rows. Strategic planting can allow for hedge rows that can be accessible or blocked to the animals with some fencing. This will allow some rows to be grazed while others are recovering from recent grazing.
An additional benefit of planting this tree is that it will produce large quantities of seed when mature. This can be a supplementary income source if the farmers choose to sell the seed.
If we are able to replace a significant amount of alfalfa we currently feed, our dairy will be able to sustain itself for the future. Reducing our feed bill and increasing quality of fresh green feed available to our goats would be a godsend.
Preliminary research shows that an area in Western Australia has extensive tagasaste plantings and its conditions are very similar to West Texas. Once we determine the soil content, we add any supplement to the soil to bring it closer to the ideal.
Next, we will till over a small demonstration area of our field with the intention of planting rows that will be similar in distance as a larger future field. To increase our potential for success, we want to try several species of this plant to determine which is best suited for our area.
Also to insure a good germination, we will start seedlings in our greenhouse as well as planting them directly in the ground. We will build tunnels with agribond covers to protect against freezes, hail or insects.
To encourage growth, we will water the trees with a llama manure “tea.” It is likely that we will be able to begin some initial harvesting of the crop to begin feeding to the goats.
At some point we hope to only use our grey water from our dairy to water the plants. That would relieve us of trying to irrigate the plants with our well water. if the project is successful we will replace much of our feed bought from others and have an unending source of good, green, healthy feed.
Initially I approached this project as a traditional crop that would be planted into the ground, cared for and eventually harvested. I was working on the premise that our climate was similar to the climate of Western Australia where tagasaste is grown extensively for forage. Our soil was considered similar, our basic climate, dry and arid would be similar and our temperature range was similar except that we are at almost 5,000 ft. elevation and the winter temperatures can dip down to the teens. The low end of the temperature tolerance range for tagasaste would be 15 degrees F. That would be most likely the lowest temperature we would experience in the winter.
Following recommendations from the seed supplier and online information, I pre-soaked my seeds in boiling water and let them set for 24 hours before they were planted. Once planted I tried to keep them moist in the ground to encourage germination. Nothing grew. I was unable to germinate them in the ground even during temperature range that would have been supportive.
My next attempt included the initial pre-soak of the seeds but instead of putting them directly into the ground I put in small pots in my green house and watered them daily until germination ( 3 weeks). I experienced modest germination, 50% of the seeds started to sprout. When they were about 6 inches tall I planted them in the ground watering every other day. They survived until the winter but died off. It then seemed important to provide more protection during the cold months to get them established.
Learning from this I decided to start the plants again in my greenhouse and overwinter them in it until they were much bigger and plant in the spring when the danger of frost was over. Also to encourage a better rate of germination I scarified (scratched the hard seeds before soaking). This was best done with two pieces of sandpaper making a sandwich to roll the seeds back and forth then put it the boiling water, take off the heat and allow the seeds to soak overnight. These plants were protected, transplanted into larger pots and grown to about 18 inches high before they were transplanted in the spring.
Once transplanted I protected them with a chicken wire ring to prevent animals from eating them. At first watering every other day then after they were established only once a week. They grew through the summer and into the fall. At that point they were up to 3 feet high. In October we had our first threat of a winter storm and I prepared the plants by building a tunnel with PVC hoops and covered with a heavy agribond cloth. Because of the financial impact Covid had on our business (income reduced by 50%) we decided to utilize recycled materials (pvc pipe, rebar stakes, black feed tubs etc). We were unable to fund new materials but living on a farm we always have extra materials.
The plants were staked and mulched. Heavy brown paper feed bags were used to surround the plants as weed barrier and hold in moisture. The pvc pipes were cut to size and bent into 1/2 hoops. Covering the hoops with agribond we used concrete blocks to hold the material down due to heavy winds in our ares. We were hit by a early ice storm with high winds in early October. Through out the winter we had several strong winter storms and low temps (down to 12 degrees) but the plants were watered and kept protected. They did lose their leaves but the stalks still seemed supple and green.
On February 14th, 2021 we had a once in a decade winter storm that brought temperatures down close to zero one night with high winds. I had prepared the plants in advance by covering each individual plant with a large brown paper feed bag and then covering with agribond. This would hopefully add extra protection. The plants should be able to survive down to 15 degrees in normal conditions. With the agribond and bags they should have given them adequate protection. The best we could do was to make sure the plants were watered and covered to keep alive. We discussed putting some heat in the tunnel but since we lost our electricity that would have been a wasted effort.
It is too early to know if the plants have survived. This is March and in the next month I will take the covers off and hope they will regenerate. Watching the plants and watering we will know if its time to move forward and create an irrigation system to keep them growing and utilize our grey water from our dairy.
The results that will reveal a sucessful project will be if we see how many of the plants survived the winter. At that point they should grow rapidly to a point that they can be harvested or allow the goats to graze on them. If that happens then we will hopefully utilize our fodder up until the next fall and then take steps to protect them in the following winter.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We had our first field day in November of 2019 opening the farm to interested visitors. During that day, we toured the visitors to see the plants growing in the field and in our greenhouse. Handouts were given to provide information to grow the plants. The field day was advertised in the local newspaper, social media and through posters.
The second field day was planned for November of 2020 but was made impossible because of the pandemic. We had planned to have an public field day at our farm but we determined that would not be wise and needed another mode to share the results of my research.
Instead I created a powerpoint presentation that was introduced during a webinar session of the Texas Organic Farmers Gardeners Association during their virtual conference. My original budget contained advertisements and posters as a way to market the field day. Instead many hours of my time/work were used to create this powerpoint presentation. It included photography of the project, graphics, the creation of the actual presentation.
My session was February 8 and included the powerpoint presentation and a Q & A session through the chat room of the Zoom session. This was made available to 211 participants in the conference. I requested that the webinar be open to the public and TOFGA allowed me to publish the live link for the webinar. This was published by myself and TOFGA on social media extensively. The interview and presentation is in the archives of the organization and can be made available for educational purposes.
The research I have done can be considered a springboard for any farmer/rancher who wants to create an inexpensive and sustainable feed source for their livestock. Our research will make it easier for any farmer/rancher to start project of growing the tagasaste plants through our success and failures in this project. The methods of germination, growth, planting and care of these plants has been a learning process through trial and error. Hopefully what we have learned will shortcut anyone elses journey to grow these plants.
The cost of feed/fodder for a small dairy or farm can be the difference between making a small profit or no profit at all. We have been held hostage by the cost and availablity of feed especially in West Texs where drought is common. There have been years when by the middle of winter we are not able to even purchase alfalfa or hay anywhere in this part of the state. When we did find feed it was often incredibly expensive and of poor quality. If we can perservere with this project it can be a game changer for us or for any small producer.
I created a power point presentation on the knowledge that we acquired through the reseach project. This was presented to the TOFGA 2021 online conference
7:00 – 7:45 PM CST: Tagasaste, a new feed for Texas
Finding fresh and affordable feed for in hot and dry areas of Texas can be a challenge. Over the past 3 years, Marfa Maid Dairy has taken on the challenge to try and grow an Australian plant and tree, Tagasaste, to be fed as a highly nutritious feed for their animals. Farmer Malinda Beeman will share what she has learned about the potential this plant holds in supporting livestock in some of Texas’ driest climates. This project was developed with the support of a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research Education grant.
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I believe there will be an opportunity for future study with this project but it seems as though it will be revealed as it progresses. For now, we are hoping to just have the plants grow and if that is successful then the application of the feed source, how its harvested and its yield, effect on our milk production and health of the animals could be the next area of study.