Native Food for Fodder- Spanish Needles (AKA Bidens)

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Spanish needles, beggar’s tick, monkey’s lice, ‘annoying seeds from Hades!’… This Florida native, Bidens Alba or its sister species Bidens pelosa, has many common names. It takes 10 minutes of cutting and 15 minutes of raking to turn it into livestock fodder- and here’s why we do it…

 

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I See Bidens

They are a very prolific native aster plant here in Florida where they are found in every single county across the state (Atlas of Florida Plants). Their seeds are notorious for dog-piling on everyone’s pant-legs and yet they’re also a major source of food for pollinators in the state (Florida Native Plant Society). We often see them while driving down the highway or along pathways and take them for granted.

When we first moved into our homestead in mid-summer (hello Florida heat) we noticed a big patch of Bidens growing in our front yard. Without any extra fertilizer or irrigation, they would grow into giant mats over 20 inches high before collapsing and gaining woody stems. It would be really difficult for us to scythe it back down. Luckily, we noticed the horses enjoyed the younger shoots and something clicked.

Happy Horse, Happy Homestead

The horses struggled with the older, woodier stuff but loved the newer softer stages of the Bidens. After cutting a few small swaths down for the goats we decided that Bidens had to become a new source of fodder in our seasonal rotation.The trick was to use it at the right stages so that we can reap the most benefit as a homestead ecosystem.

Things we had to consider:

  • Numerous pollinators enjoy the flowers
  • A number of beneficial pest predators like Orius Insidiosus are commonly found on them
  • The horses and goats love eating the newer growth and dislike the older growth
  • The older growth tended to be harder to cut and often times the thick matting of the under story encourage pesky armyworms to proliferate, a pest we don’t want wandering into our gardens

Managing Your Bidens

Late Winter (around February)- Despite the mildness of our winters here in central Florida, the Bidens start browning down come winter. We use this time to cut anything remaining in our Biden patch to a few inches from the ground. We like to leave the cuttings there for a week or so to make sure any seeds still clinging to the plant are knocked off before doing anything else. Then, we’ll rake up the brown stalks and toss them in to our chicken coop area for the birds to sort through.

Spring- We’ll bring the horses out occasionally to snack on any early spikes of green if they show up. It helps even out the growth of out little Biden patch. Any manure they leave behind is great because we can spread it around after it’s dried a bit with our rake. Spreading the manure is easier than scooping it out and it certainly doesn’t hurt the Bidens. Other than that we mostly let the crop come in unassisted.

Early Summer (around May)– Historically the rainy season doesn’t really start until hurricane season does (ie. June). With that being the case, the few rain storms in May that we have are usually enough to jump start a heavy flush of Biden growth. This is when you want to start paying attention to the flowers.

Flower Watching- Into the rest of spring, summer, fall, and early winter is a fun game of keeping an eye out for flower spikes. That is to say, when you see tons of flowers starting to erupt from the Bidens, that’s when we like to take our scythe out and start cutting.

Cutting & Saving: We like simplicity so we like to just cut 1/3 of our yard at any given time. It takes either of us ten minutes to cut about 800 square feet of Bidens with our scythe* (about 28ftX28ft), which is really easy to cut with once you get the hang of it. The far larger workout is the 15 minutes of raking it all together to plop it in our steel wheelbarrow.
When we do cut we also make sure to save about 2/3’s of the Bidens in our yard to ensure that the local  pollinators can still stop by for a pollen/nectar top-off. It might look funny, but it is worth the return in natural services we get with regards to pollination, natural predator banking, and future fodder. We simply cut another 1/3 of the yard after the other section starts flowering again.

Cutting Tips: Early on, we usually wait until they are about 10 inches tall and try to not let them shoot past 20 inches. Sometimes the day-job is more tiring than we’d care for and when they reach 25 inches tall be we chop them. We usually cut them down to 2-4 inches from the ground. Using the scythe lets us keep an eye out for any noxious weeds that we’d like to avoid and keep an ear out for any rat-deterring snakes. Also, these tend to be best served fresh as we have not had any success in drying these in Florida’s humidity.

*A weedwacker would be a better substitute than a lawnmower for the scythe because a lawnmower tends to mulch up what ever you are cutting. A scythe, however, uses no gas, puts us in more of a meditative mindset while we work, and has been our go-to cutting tool since we started homesteading 9 years ago.

Scoping out the work ahead of me- excluding the other grasses and plants, I have roughly 800 square feet of Spanish needles flowering before me
Literally 10 minutes later and not winded at all I’ve scythed everything and a bit more
The hard part- about 15 minutes of raking and pitchforking into our steel wheelbarrow to get it ready for delivery to our 3 horses and 5 goats- enough to replace about half of their hay supplement in total

Want to try this in your own yard/homestead?  Here’s how to get started:

  1. Figure out what native plants you have on your property- a field guide like this one can help (this one is for flowering plants of the Eastern North America, but there are field guides for all different parts of the US and all over the world).  Note any that may be poisonous to your animals – obviously you don’t want to feed them anything dangerous!  Keep in mind that something that is safe for one animal may be toxic to a different animal.
  2. Figure out what native plants your animals like to eat.  This will of course depend on what type of animals you have, but keep in mind that it may vary seasonally and at different life stages of the plant.  Our horses will eat Bidens when they are younger during the spring, but they lose interest as they get older and tougher.  The best way to do this is through observations at different times of year.  Take your animals out to different patches at different times of year and watch what they are eating – they will tell you what they like!
  3. Harvest their favorites at the appropriate times and encourage their further growth!  Make sure you don’t harvest too much (of either the individual plant or of the patch) at once.  The goal is to have a self sustaining patch that can support wildlife and your animals as well!

Any questions?  Let us know if you use your own local native plants as fodder. We’d love to hear about it on our Facebook page!

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