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Feeding willow to livestock agroforestry network

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Feeding willow to lambs agroforestry network

Innovative Farmers and Soil Association have launched a new agroforestry network specifically focusing on the benefits of feeding willow to lambs.

The learning network will meet quarterly to link farmers together to help share their knowledge and experiences on the topic.  

Many weaned lambs suffer from cobalt deficiency which can impact on growth rates, especially during a dry summer.  Studies have found that feeding lambs willow can significantly reduce this deficiency, without the need for additional treatment such as boluses. 

This new network aims to explore this topic further.  We’ll be sharing experiences and expertise on the practicalities of feeding willow to lambs.  The group includes experts in the fields of mineral nutrition and agroforestry planting, and there will be guest speakers at the meetings. 

There will also be the chance an IF field lab to measure the impact of willow on your lambs’ health. 

The next meeting will be on 14th March 2024 at 1pm. 

To register interest and join the network get in touch:  info@innovativefarmers.org / 01173 145109

Latest updates

The Soil Association Scotland ran a webinar on Tree Hay and speakers included Lindsay Whistance from ORC presenting on research findings about willow nutrients. Lindsay advised that you ensure comfortable browsing heights, as sheep cannot browse beyond 1.2 metres but in a visit to a site of weaned lambs, the comfortable browsing height was 60cm.

Lindsay is currently taking part in the the Re-Livestock project, where they are planning trials comparing different types of willow and three methods of storing and feeding the willow (compared to a control of tree hay): Pelleting, chipping, and ensiling. They will analyse nutritional content and emissions. 

Watch the full recording here.


On 24th March we had the spring 2024 network meeting. 

We heard from Ben Raskin at Soil Association about designing a browsable system, and from Emma Bird at Woodland Trust about Agroforestry funding, including the 'Trees for your Farm Scheme'.

The recording can be found here

willow coppice - credit Ben Raskin

On 14th December the agroforestry network on feeding willow to livestock held its second meeting on the topic of establishing an maintenance of willow on farm.  

Our first speaker was Steven.... As well as providing tips on planting and maintenance he also talked about willow's longer growing season, and the benefits for biodiversity and for water and nutrient management.

Oliver talked us through the set up of his agroforestry system on his farm in Shropshire.  As well as the establishment methods he also talked about the challenges of pest and weed control, and different ways of feeding the willow to his sheep. 

This formal part of the session was then followed by a Q&A session.

The first part of the meeting can be watched here:

Feeding willow to lambs agroforestry network - 2nd meeting, Dec 23 (youtube.com)

The next meeting will be 14th March at 1pm.  We'll be discussing the costs and savings of feeding willow, as well as advising on relevant funding sources.

If you are interested in joining the network do get in touch and we'll add you to the mailing list: lgude@soilassociation.org

Winter 2023 – Planting & Maintenance of Willow (date tbc)

Spring 2024 – Overview of costs & funding available (date tbc)

Summer 2024 – Organised Farm Walk Session (date tbc)

Autumn 2024 – (summary of what we have learnt) Designing a browsable Willow system. (date tbc)

The first meeting of the Agroforestry Learning Network on feeding willow to lambs

A practical session on using willow to fulfil the cobalt (and hence B12) requirement for growing lambs.

Cobalt is an essential trace element for sheep used to make vitamin B12 which supports growth.  However, cobalt deficiency (also known as ill thrift/pine) can be common in weaned lambs.  This can cause significant production losses even at a sub clinical level due to poor growth rates. 

Grass pasture rarely meets the daily requirement for lambs throughout the season and is actually lower in the dry summer months when weaned lambs should be at maximum growth rates. Therefore cobalt and/or vitamin B12 are often supplemented.  However, administering boluses and drenches add cost both in terms of product and time to administer, we do not want to feed grass fed lambs and free access supplements cannot guarantee consistent intakes in all animals.

Willow leaves have been shown to have high concentrations of cobalt, there has been some research into feeding willow as a cobalt supplement and some farmers have begun to feed or are considering feeding willow to their lambs as a cobalt supplement.  
We’ll hear form Jeremy Gibbs, who began feeding willow to his lambs in 2021 and continues today cutting and dropping for ewes and lambs. Jeremy trialled making willow hay for winter 2021-2022 and noticed adding this to the hay feeder kept the ewes in top gut health and produced some lovely lambs. In summer 2021 he weekly offered up ad-lib willow to the growing lambs. Some April born lambs achieving around 50kg by September.  Jeremy’s other findings are the reduction in wormer. 

We’ll also hear from Dr Nigel Kendall from the University of Nottingham who has undertaken significant research on this topic, and Jon Haines, Agroforestry Advisor at Soil Association, who will talk about the practicalities.

There will also be the opportunity to develop an Innovative Farmers trial (field lab) exploring the practicalities and results of feeding willow to weaned lambs and/or join a discussion network.  This will be outlined within the session.

Jeremy Gibbs 
Jeremy grazes a small flock of sheep on the Hampshire / Dorset border. Being a new entrant and running Forces Farming parallel, the sheep are somewhat of a training flock for veterans and a sideline.  He sells lambs direct to butchers and farm shops locally while awaiting a trial run of lamb skins this summer. 

Dr Nigel Kendall
A farmer’s son who after a degree in Animal Science and a PhD in Ruminant Mineral Nutrition (both at University of Leeds), ended up lecturing Nutrition at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. His expertise is in trace element nutrition, especially of ruminants. Nigel set up and runs the NUVetNA laboratory within the Vet School which runs a trace element and metabolite analytical service for Farmers, Vets and the feed industry.  Recently Nigel has moved into the nutritional benefits of trees, especially for use as mineral bio-supplements.

Jon Haines
Jon is Agroforestry advisor at Soil Association.  He helps members with agroforestry technical, marketing, supply chain and networking queries. He brings knowledge and experience of both arboriculture and agriculture. His previous role saw him travel to implement and support farmer projects with herb, spice and tea farmers around the world. 


1st Meeting - introduction to the network

Sep 23

2nd meeting - willow establishment and maintenance

Dec 23

3rd meeting - costs, benefits and funding

14th March 2024

On farm meeting

June '24

Autumn meeting

Sep '24

Group Coordinator

A portrait of Jon Haines.
Jon Haines

Soil Association

Jon Haines joins the Farming and Land Use team as an Agroforestry Advisor, where he will help individual members with agroforestry technical, marketing, supply chain and networking queries. He brings knowledge and experience of both arboriculture and agriculture. His previous role saw him travel to implement and support farmer projects with herb, spice and tea farmers around the world. He has also helped set up a pioneering community aquaculture project off the coast of St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

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