Yew’s Not for Ewes

When we’ve been weeding in the garden, or trimming trees, we have a natural first choice for disposal of what we’ve eliminated: we feed it to the livestock. The goats and sheep love the variety, especially when they haven’t had much variety in a while. Goats have a reputation for eating everything; that’s not quite true, but they will at least nibble on pretty much anything you throw to them.

There are some trees and plants that are highly toxic for ruminants, however. Before tossing some random green thing over the fence for the sheep or goats, it’s important to identify that thing. Most of us end up with the same kinds of weeds growing in the garden year after year — so, get a good field guide and get to know your weeds. In our case, almost every weed is safe except one: Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade). We get a lot of it in our garden, especially later in the summer, and it grows close in with ragweed (which is fine to feed to ruminants). I make sure I pull the nightshade first, and dispose of it safely, before pulling the ragweed.

Back in Illinois, we had a lot of poison hemlock (Conium maculatumgrowing on our property. Problem is, we also had a lot of Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) on the property — and the two weeds look very similar at first glance. The latter is harmless, but the former is highly toxic. Our first year of farming, I was clueless as to the danger of poison weeds; I thought green stuff was green stuff. As a result, I threw a bunch of poison hemlock leaves in for our first batch of baby goslings. Within a half hour, they were dropping dead. We figured out that something must be making them sick, so we pulled all the green stuff out. We managed to saved some of the goslings, but it was a painful and expensive lesson. There are few experiences as wrenching as watching helplessly while your thriving baby birds keel over dead. I’d hate for someone else to have to go through this.

So, get to know what’s growing on your property — or, at least, make sure someone in your family does. At our place, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is the resident expert on weeds and the perennial trees / shrubs in yard. I think she’s memorized the field guide, and can tell you the name of every plant on our property.

MYF’s knowledge and study saved a lot of problems yesterday. I decided to take advantage of the beautiful spring weather, so found a set of loppers and trimmed the Yew trees growing near the house. Not being the “tree / shrub” expert, I didn’t even know what these things were. But she did. Before I’d even made the first cut, she warned me: “Don’t feed these Yew branches to the animals. I’m almost positive that Yew is toxic for sheep and goats.”

I replied that I hoped it wasn’t toxic, because I’d been hoping to provide the ruminants with some variety after a long winter of hay and grain. Pretty much their only treat had been our Christmas tree.


While I went to work trimming branches, MYF double-checked about Yew. Sure enough, multiple sources warned that it was highly toxic for all ruminants.

Yew Branches

Good thing she was on the ball. I made sure the Yeoman Farm Children took all the branches to the burn pile. As for providing the sheep and goats with some variety in their diet? Well, dandelion season will get here soon enough.

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