From farming stock to lifestyle blocks

A Guide to Fodder Trees and Plants - Part One: Natives

19-Jul-2013 | Contributed by: Niki Morrell

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Flax leaf

Flax is found all over the country and is well known for its hardiness. The plant can take a couple of years to get established, but will then grow vigorously and multiply rapidly.

In times of drought, farmers usually either de-stock or buy in feed when their grass stops growing. These might work as short-term solutions but what if the drought persists?

The fallout from last summer’s drought -- considered the worst in 70 years and with an estimated cost of $2 billion -- continues, with Beef and Lamb New Zealand’s economic service now predicting 3 million fewer lambs this year.

Droughts, according to the NZ Government’s climate change information website, are likely to become more common. It makes sense for farmers to have mitigation plans in place now. That mitigation should include looking at alternative sources of feed: trees and non-pasture plants that can be rationed out to livestock in times of emergency.

The most commonly-used fodder trees are exotics

Mention “fodder trees” to anyone with an interest in the subject and they’ll probably talk about poplar, willow and possibly tagasaste (tree lucerne). There’s been plenty of research carried out in New Zealand about all three. But with the exception of two studies on NZ flax published in 2005 and 2008, there’s been no research conducted into the suitability of native plants for stock feed.

Why consider natives?

Cattle have similar preferences to deer and find many native plant species highly palatable. Most of these plants have a wide distribution across the country, are hardy and relatively fast-growing, and could easily be incorporated into shelter belts and mixed plantings around the farm. They could then be used in the same ways as exotic fodder trees: either as controlled browse or in a cut-and-carry system.

Advantages of natives

  • Most natives are evergreen, so can be used in any season, including winter.
  • If you live on a bush block and can afford to wait, you can propagate the plants yourself and save money.
  • Plantings attract native birds and other endemic wildlife.

Disadvantages of natives

  • Although the examples below are commonly found over most of New Zealand, not all natives are suited to all places. Eco-source your plants to increase their chances of surviving your conditions.
  • Natives can be more expensive to buy than many exotics and can be slower to establish.
  • High palatability makes the plants vulnerable to introduced pests.

Examples of potential native fodder trees/plants

Without research, it’s not possible to know how practical and effective native plants could be as fodder trees. The five examples below are well-documented for palatability, even if the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. This is not a definitive list -- use it as a starting point for your own research.

1. Broadleaf, Kāpuka (Griselinia littoralis)

The shoots and leaves of this hardy native are highly palatable to stock and deer. The plant recovers quickly from browsing. Reasonably fast-growing (30-50cm per year), it is often planted for shelter on exposed coasts.

Broadleaf grows in most situations but needs some wind and frost protection in the high country. Depending on local conditions, it can reach heights of anywhere between 6 and 15 metres and can also be pruned into a shrub. Broadleaf can live more than 100 years.

2. Whiteywood, Māhoe (Melicytus ramiflorus)

This small (5m), fast-growing tree is so palatable to cows and horses that early Banks Peninsula farmers nicknamed it “cow leaf”. It was considered a valuable source of fodder, especially in droughts. Sheep, deer and goats love it too.

Widely distributed in New Zealand, mahoe can withstand wind but needs protection from prolonged freezing. It will recover quickly from drought, once established, and it suckers freely. In favourable situations, māhoe can live up to 80 years.

3. New Zealand Flax, Harakeke and Wharariki (Phormium tenax and P. cookianum)

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence concerning the palatability and health benefits of flax, particularly for cattle. Calves are said to thrive on flax and an old remedy for scouring involved hanging flax leaves over a fence for the young animals to suck. Some farmers believe the plant helps to prevent bloat. Sheep also readily browse flax, eating young shoots and leaf tips. Deer and goats will strip the leaves of their tasty green parts with only the fibrous residue remaining.

Flax has a reputation for having anthelmintic properties (destroyer of parasitic worms) but a New Zealand study published in 2008 concluded that feeding flax to calves with an existing mixed nematode infection made no difference to the faecal egg counts. The study did note, however, that the flax-fed calves grew more than the control calves fed on barley straw.

Flax is distributed all over New Zealand. Known for its hardiness, it will grow in wet ground as well as sand and can tolerate some drought. It can take a couple of years to get established but will then grow vigorously and multiply rapidly.

4. Five-finger, Whauwhaupaku and Mountain Five-finger, Orihou (Pseudopanax arboreus and P. colensoi)

Highly palatable to cattle, these small trees grow 5-8m high. True five-finger is widely distributed throughout both islands, while mountain five-finger is found only in the South Island. Both varieties have suffered from browsing and ring-barking by deer, goats, possums and wallabies.

True five-finger is fast-growing and hardy, although young plants will need protection from frost on exposed sites. It can grow in semi-shade but dislikes heavy clay soils. Mountain five-finger is more tolerant of cold, wind and soil type.

5. Patē, Seven-finger (Schefflera digitata)

Patē likes shelter, shade and moisture. It is related to the five-fingers and has a similar, almost tropical-looking appearance. It grows on Stewart Island and both main islands, not usually reaching more than 3-6m in height, although it can attain 8m in the right conditions.

Once established, patē is a fast grower. It is vulnerable to frost and drying out when young and will sometimes drop its leaves in winter. Cattle relish it so much that it was mentioned as a particular favourite in a 1926 article for the Royal Society of New Zealand. Deer, hares and possums will also actively seek it out.

Part Two will feature exotic fodder trees.


Crowe, Andrew. Which Native Plant Can I Grow Here? Penguin, 1997.

Wardle, John. Wardle’s Native Trees of New Zealand and Their Story. New Zealand Farm Forestry Association, 2011.

Timmins, Susan M., 2002. Impact of cattle on conservation land licensed for grazing in South Westland, New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Ecology 26, 107-120.

Sustainable Farming Fund, 2006. Integrating New Zealand Flax into Land Management Systems.

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