A well-managed pasture is an amazing ecosystem of nature. It may contain a variety of grasses, weeds or forbs, and other naturally occurring plants, some of which may be classified as herbs. When properly managed, diverse pasture can provide virtually all of the nutrition our grazing animals need to not only survive, but to thrive in the full bloom of health. Our own pastures had been acidic and full of weeds – a virtual monoculture of fescue and some bluegrass. After three years, we sowed orchard grass, crabgrass, annual and perennial rye, and white and red clovers for nitrogen. The combination of warm and cool season grasses, along with herbs, created a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

Achieving a diverse pasture takes effort. Today we are constantly bombarded with the latest grass seed from manufacturers, usually a genetically engineered or modified organism that often lacks the nutrition found in the non-engineered plants. On top of the grass varieties touted to perform perfectly in any environment, we are also sold a dubious bill of goods with fertilizers. Chemical fertilizer is now very expensive. Prices of nitrogen are at record levels. With gasoline and diesel fuel prices at eye watering levels, most farmers cannot afford to apply the fertilizer even if they have the means to purchase it. “Times – they are a changing” and success demands that we look at alternative ways of managing our pastures so that they are healthy, productive, and lush enough to withstand moderate periods of drought.

One of the ways in which we can ensure our pastures are healthy and our animals in turn receive optimum nutrition is to look at the interaction of plant species and the role they play. Herbs are remarkable plants. Many natural medicines are derived from herbs; some cannot even be synthesized effectively in a laboratory due to their complex chemical structure. Usually, it is several compounds working together in synergy that makes the herb so unique and effective in its role. Herbs provide many benefits. They are generally pest resistant, many attract honeybees, and quite a few are loaded with nutrition and other beneficial traits. Chosen and placed wisely in our pastures, herbs can fill in the gaps with animal nutrition and health so that either no chemicals or minimal chemicals are required to treat and manage livestock.

The first place to start is to ensure that you have diverse pastures and manage your grazing plan well. A good mix of native cool and warm season grasses, clovers or other legumes, and a balance of protein and carbohydrate in the available forage will naturally tend to crowd out the bad weeds without use of chemicals. Certain weeds are beneficial and provide nutritional benefits to livestock. Dandelions are a good example of a “weed” that has a deep taproot, and is loaded with vitamin C. It stimulates liver activity and encourages elimination of urea and other toxins in the blood. It is richer in vitamin A than carrots and exceeds the vitamin B, C, and D content of many other vegetables. Often a horse and cattle favorite! Lambsquarter is similar and its presence indicates very good soil conditions wherever it grows.

Forage chicory is a relative of endive and is rich in iron, calcium, and copper – all essential minerals for cattle and horses alike. Chickweed contains calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, B, and C. It is also a system cleanser and digestive aid. Chickweed easily self-sows throughout fields (and, unfortunately our gardens!). Cows will actively seek out chickweed when they feel they need an extra vitamin boost. Calendula, while well known for healing wounds, is naturally rich in natural iodine, manganese, and carotene. Another plus is that it is repellent to many bad bugs, thus providing yet another benefit in the pasture. A disadvantage to calendula is that it is also alleopathic – it tends to inhibit plant growth of other certain species, such as bluegrass and smooth brome grass. It is best planted in hedgerows where it will not interfere with pasture grass growth patterns.

Humble plantain is one of the most widespread wild herbs. Often seen alongside dandelions, it is rich in mucilage, tannins, and salicylic acid. It is related to psyllium. Taken internally, it is a cooling and healing tonic. St. Johns wort is a common, hardy herb that withstands extreme heat and droughts. It exudes a subtle fragrance of balsam. Often found as a roadside plant, it is a member of the Hypericum family and is widely recognized as an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral remedy. Thyme contains amounts of iron and is very attractive to honeybees, which in turn pollinate many other plants and legumes.

Some herbs are considered weeds. Many nuisance plants in our pastures are classified as herbs – either woody herbs or tender herbs. Brambles such as red raspberry or blackberries are useful as they contain compounds that help to regulate the reproductive system in livestock. Wild rose produces rose hips that are loaded with vitamin C. Honeysuckle vines and flowers, considered by many to be the scourge of fence lines, provide vitamin A and C along with salicylic acid. It can also be a laxative and diuretic.

Nettle is an important tonic herb that has immune stimulating effects, increasing the activity of lymphocytes. Purslane is another common weed found in pastures. It has the remarkable ability to metabolize bisphenol A, a common compound found in biosolids used as fertilizer on fields. Bisphenol A is a potent endocrine disruptor and will make animals quite ill; purslane has the ability to safely remove these endocrine disruptors from the body. It is also a potent source of healthful omega-3 fatty acids. Burdock root is useful for arthritic animals, although the mechanism is not well understood.

Many herbs are medicinal in nature. Quite a few animals will self-medicate using naturally growing herbs at hand. Wormwood is a member of the artemesia family of which tarragon is a part. We plant bushes of wormwood throughout our pastures so that both the horses and cows can eat the aromatic leaves. Wormwood is used as a natural wormer of the digestive tract. Mint varieties and lemon balm aid digestion and also relieves some respiratory distress. Lemon balm has antispasmodic characteristics and can be used for stress-induced digestive and respiratory problems. It also helps to slightly dilate blood vessels to ensure good circulation in cases of vasculitis. Combined with chamomile, it is an effective treatment for eczema-type lesions that may be a precursor to scratches in horses. Pine and juniper are useful in treating liver flukes and ascaris infestations. Animals will free choice select the needles and berries on an as-needed basis.

An amazing aspect of certain herbs is their ability to halt soil diseases – pathogens that damage grasses or other plants. Many common garden soil diseases, such as wilt or anthracnose, can be inhibited by interplanting with herbs. Lavender and thyme are quite aggressive in eliminating the soil pathogen, verticillium dahliae, a common soil-borne disease. By using the concept of companion planting in this way, you can have a profound affect on the soil, other plants, and on animal health.

The next time you start to reach for the sprayer with herbicide, remember that the herbicide is rather indiscriminate and may eliminate the good plants along with the ones you are trying to remove. Those “pesky plants” may be exactly what you need already!

To put this into practical application, most nurseries carry a wide selection of herbs for planting. Some farmers markets or local farms may sell small 3” transplants. Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) lists many small farms devoted to herb culture. Most herbs are easily grown from seed in small window containers. We start many of our pasture herbs indoors in February on a windowsill for transfer to the pastures in May (in central Virginia). Several excellent sources of herb seeds are Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) and Johnny’s Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). Another method we frequently use is to take a patch of pasture out of production and rototill along a fence line and plant herbs there. We also use fence corners for that same purpose. It is harder to mow corners with a bushhog so herb collections are a practical alternative. We also interplant other species with the herbs that, while not necessarily medicinal or nutritious to livestock, nonetheless are home to beneficial insects or attract butterflies and honeybees. The addition of bee balm, lemon balm, mints, hyssop, lavender, and others encourages an oasis for beneficial insects. An excellent primer on interplanting with herbs can be found at Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto, CA (www.commongroundinpaloalto.org). The links on their home page feature medicinal herbs, interplanting with vegetables, and other plants for insect control as well as enhancing vigor of other plants.

Consider the herb gardens of the 1600’s in Europe. Many were not just esthetic but medicinal as well; a veritable pharmacopoeia for the land owner and their family. Modern medicine is a terrific tool but is often overused with many side affects. Many livestock farmers are realizing the benefits of a more natural approach to animal husbandry and the significantly lessened costs. It all starts with good, balanced nutrition – herbs can fill in the gaps and minor needs of the animals quite well.

References:

Herbs for Health, Taunton Press
Natural Cattle Care, Pat Colby
The Complete Book of Herbs, Lesley Bremness
Various internet resources