- Agronomic: hay, medics/alfalfa
- Animals: goats
- Animal Products: dairy
- Animal Production: feed/forage
- Production Systems: dryland farming
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.