Calves feed on ash leaves in a field in Saint-Côme-d’Olt, October 19, 2022 in Aveyron (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
To overcome the unprecedented drought of the past few months and compensate for the lack of grass, farmers on the Aubrac plateau in Aveyron are resorting to an ancestral practice: feeding their animals with tree leaves.
“Ash trees are our drought insurance,” says Christian Bonal, 58. Chainsaw in hand, this Saint-Côme-d’Olt cattle farmer cut “several hundred” of these trees this year.
“Normally we cut it in the middle of August, but there, from July 15, everyone went to work,” he adds. The reason: drought. The pastures were yellow this summer, the animals had nothing to eat.
Christian, who has 80 mother cows of the Aubrac breed, and his neighbors have therefore cut the leaves from the ash trees to bring “a little protein and greens” to their herds and avoid expenses.
“That’s two trucks of hay we haven’t bought”, or more than 6,000 euros saved, the operator estimates.
Farmer Christian Bonal cuts ash branches with a chainsaw to feed his animals, on October 19, 2022 in Saint-Côme-d’Olt, in Aveyron (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
“The leaves replace the grass and the cows love it. You can give them anything else, they prefer ash,” smiles Jean-François Bailleau, 59, another breeder, near the village of Saint-Chély -d’Aubrac.
The proof is: at the noise of the tractor or chainsaw, the cows gather under the trees and wait for the branches to fall.
– Tradition –
The practice is not new. The rows of ash trees bordering the plots on the high plateau were planted by their ancestors “to make leaves”, AFP Christian Bonal tells.
Farmer Marc Rozières pulls ash branches to feed his animals on October 19, 2022 in Saint-Côme-d’Olt in Averyon (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
“At that time we cut them with an axe,” recalls Marc Rozières, 59. “As a child, our job was to pull the branches” so the animals wouldn’t struggle to catch them, and “make bundles” of leaves for the calves in winter, remember this neighbor.
This practice provided extra fodder, wood for winter heating, and trees were kept from one year to the next to compensate for the lack of grass in case of drought.
Ash and other trees were also used elsewhere in France for cattle, sheep or goats.
But the practice was somewhat lost from the 1950s: “farms have grown, we have intensified production and this resource, which was not very productive, has been neglected”, remembers Bernard Miquel, former adviser in charge of the development of bocage at Aveyron Chamber of Agriculture.
Farmer Christian Bonal carries ash branches to feed his animals on October 19, 2022 in Saint-Côme-d’Olt, Aveyron (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
It “has only been preserved very marginally”, he states. In Aubrac, rare people like Christian Bonal have never left it. Others like Jean-François Bailleau, originally from Basse-Normandie, discovered it.
“It was during the drought in 2003 that I started to think about it” thanks to an employee, explains the breeder who took over the farm from his parents-in-law in 1995.
– Global warming –
Nearly twenty years later, most of the 700 to 1,000 ash trees in his fields have regained the form of a “trunk” or “toad.”
We intervene “every five or ten years to prune the branches at the same level to stimulate growth”, specifies Ugolin Bourbon Denis, agro-environmental project manager of the Aubrac Natural Park.
Farmer Christian Bonal shows shavings of ash trees used in barns, October 19, 2022 in Saint-Côme-d’Olt, Aveyron (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
This “intervention can seem aggressive”, but makes it possible to “strengthen the wood” and “give it a long life”, he says. She also has “a real interest in the face of global warming”: the trees that are well rooted are more resistant to drought.
But the nutritional value of the leaves varies. If the ash tree has a rich feed, it is threatened by a fungus. However, the National Institute for Agronomic Research (Inrae) in Lusignan (Vienne) continues to study it together with other species, including elm and white mulberry.
“In Spain and North America, the white mulberry is a species that is widely used for livestock feed”, and which has potential in France due to global warming, explains Sandra Novak, research engineer at Inrae.
Farmer Jean-François Bailleau cuts ash branches with a chainsaw to feed his herd on October 19, 2022 in Saint-Côme-d’Olt, in Aveyron (AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)
The interest of fodder trees is manifold: in addition to supplementing food, they form reservoirs of biodiversity, provide shade for livestock and crops, and promote animal welfare.
But “it is not a possible solution on a large scale”, tempers Hélène Alexandre, beef cattle adviser at the Chamber of Agriculture. This practice is time-consuming and risky for people without experience in pruning. “Every year, she adds, accidents happen.”