Making Tree Hay for Winter Feed

What did livestock owners do for hay in ancient times?  This is a question I’ve pondered and yearned to know, because we strive to live life as non mechanized as possible.  When I heard about tree hay, I instantly knew it was what I’d been looking for.  Tree hay is one of the oldest hay production methods in recorded history.  Ancient pollards, or trees cut specifically for branchy growth as is used in tree hay making, have been found across Europe and it is even mentioned in ancient Roman times.

What is Tree Hay?

Tree hay is exactly what it sounds like and the process couldn’t be simpler.  Branches from leaf trees are cut in the peak of the growing season and stored for winter feeding.  Nearly any deciduous tree can be used, though there are specific concerns about branches from pit fruits, because the leaves during their wilted stage are highly toxic, particularly to ruminants. Though they are fine once dried, it isn’t something I’m willing to play around with and we avoid branches from pit fruit trees.

How to Make Tree Hay

To make your own tree hay, harvest whole branches from trees in full leaf, typically from June through September in our northern area.  Trees we have used are what we have readily available, including apple, willow and elm.  Generally, if your livestock eat it in summer, it’s a kind you will have success with in winter.

I have this Gorilla cart and, keeping the sides up, I first lay two strings of baling twine so that I can later use them to tie up my bundle.  I keep the sides on to roughly gauge a consistent bundle size.  Then, using a combination of pole saw (got this one for my husband one year and it’s a must-have), small chainsaw and sharp pruning shears, my husband and I cut branches from various trees, keeping each bundle in the same species.

Small branches may be consumed entirely, which is excellent, so try to find those but don’t avoid larger branches, just be prepared to pick them up at the end of season. The general rule of thumb (nyuk, nyuk) is to choose branches the diameter of your thumb or smaller.

Cut the branches about 3′ in length, or whatever works for you to easily manage, then stack in your cart or other area until you have a bundle you can just fit your arms around.

There is no drying with tree hay; you simply cut, bundle and store.

Once you have a sufficient bundle, enlist help or strong arm it yourself, pulling one twine tightly around one end, then flipping over and wrapping the twine around the other side, for a total of two wraps and then tying tightly.  Do this again on the other end and you’re all done.

Take the newly-bound bundle into your winter storage area, setting it upright so it has airflow, and walk away.  That’s it!

How Much Tree Hay Will My Animals Need?

I once read somewhere, and wish I could find again, that an average cow in ancient times would need 300 bundles the size of a sheaf of wheat to get through winter.  There isn’t much data nowadays, so that’s what I tried to base off of when calculating needs for my herd.

If an average cow was 1,000 pounds, that’d be 30 bundles for a 100-pound animal, or 20-25 bundles per Nigerian Dwarf.

We don’t harvest nearly enough to provide them with all their winter feeding needs, but I try to aim for 1-2 bundles for the herd per week.  We’ve planted about 100 willow trees to pollard and begin a tree hay rotation but that is several years out.

Feeding Tree Hay

To feed tree hay, simply offer it to your animals.  They’ll probably go crazy for it; ours do.  You won’t believe the smell when you open up a bundle of summer in the middle of winter.  It’s mouth watering.

Because there will likely be sticks left over, it’s a good idea to feed your tree hay in a feeder that allows for easy removal of said sticks.  We’re picking up sticks all over our garden this spring and wishing we’d used the feeder we intended to for tree hay.

Learn More

The best resource I’ve found online is the Facebook group Tree Hay.  It’s not my group but it is one I’ve found a lot of info on and think would be helpful to anyone wanting to learn more about making tree hay.


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