In a time where grain and animal feed shortages are occurring, comfrey may be the plant to look to.
First Let’s Talk About What Comfrey Is
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what comfrey is. Despite having been cultivated for at least 2,600 years that we know of, very few people have ever heard of comfrey. I mean come on, when was the last time you saw a field of comfrey being grown, let alone harvested?
Comfrey is a plant from the Symphytum family and in addition being grown as animal fodder, it’s known for its anti-inflammatory, astringent, and analgesic properties. In fact, Greeks and Romans used comfrey to stop heavy bleeding, treat bronchial problems, and heal wounds and broken bones. Wild versions of the plant are native to Asia, Europe, and even parts of Siberia.
It’s interesting to note that Pliny the Elder, the same person who documented the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii, also wrote about comfrey. In his work Naturalis Historia, this is one of the earliest mentions of comfrey used as a treatment for bruises and sprains. If we get extra “geeky” for a moment, it’s also noteworthy to mention that the name comfrey comes from the Latin words “come together”, which was derived from it’s medicinal use of helping bones knit.
Medicinal Use – Tread Carefully
While not our primary focus in this article, it bears sharing that Comfrey has very mixed feedback on medicinal use. Comfrey was used extensively in the past for both internal and external medicinal purposes. However, over the past 40 years or so, it’s fallen out of favor for internal treatments. This is due to studies that show that the pyrrolizidine alkaloids are toxic and can lead to liver damage if taken in large enough doses. There are still medicines made from it for topical use, but there’s equal advocates and detractors in that space, so we will leave that for you to research on your own.
Why Comfrey Matters NOW For Animal Feeding
As of this writing, there are shortages across the US and the world on both grain and fertilizers. This has caused a significant spike in prices for food at the grocery store as well as animal feed. In some markets, this has led to price increase of 30%-50% or more in the price to feed your animals. Most animal feeds are comprised of some combination of corn and soybeans. Both have significantly been impacted this year by drought and fertilizer shortages.
If you’re raising cows, sheep, or goats, those herbivores are in a good shape if you have plenty of pasture for them to graze. I realize that many ranchers finish their cattle on corn, but for this exercise we’re considering that cattle can effectively be grass fed exclusively. With the addition of some minerals, their systems can turn grass into all they need.
However, if you have chickens or pigs, those animals need additional proteins and minerals that are typically provided in commercially available feed mixes. Those mixes include starches from things like corn as well as protein from soybean meal. Those aren’t easily replaced items on a small scale homestead. At least… not until we discovered comfrey.
Comfrey leaves contain up to 25% crude protein and show similar values as soybeans in crude protein content, but much higher levels of calcium and phosphorus. Those are crazy high values when you consider that comfrey produces more biomass than those other fodder plants and can be harvested up to four times a year.
This Is a Game Changer
If we summarize all that data, it means that Comfrey can be a fantastic alternative to buying pricey feed for both chickens and pigs. There are studies out there like this one from The Science of The Total Environment that shows that 15% of pigs diet can be replaced with comfrey with no adverse effects.
Another study shows that replacing 4% of chicken feed with comfrey showed positive benefits and no adverse effects. However, these are considered to be very conservative studies. There are anecdotal examples where people say that they’ve replaced 80% or more of their pig feed and 50% or more of their chicken feed with comfrey fodder! When you consider that comfrey can be grown right in your backyard and is a perennial that comes back every year, that’s a huge cost savings!
In addition to the omnivores mentioned above, cattle, goats, sheep, and rabbits all do very well on a diet that includes comfrey. While the standard grazing animals typically have no hesitation about eating comfrey, some rabbits may want to have the comfrey in a wilted state before eating. Our rabbits have no qualms about eating the comfrey fresh (see picture above), but it does have some small stiff hairs on the leaves that some rabbits may not prefer. Allowing the leaves to slightly wilt eliminates this issue for more finicky eaters.
If you want to see why we think rabbits are one of the best backyard homestead animals to begin with, check out our post here.
So How Do I Grow Comfrey?
Growing comfrey is simple, but you want to pick the right type and location. In the 1950’s Lawrence D Hills developed a Comfrey research program in the UK near the village of Bocking. In this location, he did trials on 21 different varieties of comfrey collected from all over Europe and Asia. His methodology was to name each variety with the town name and then a subsequent number. So, this created the list of Bocking 1 through Bocking 21 as his test varieties. After much testing, he concluded that Bocking 14 (also called Russian Comfrey) had the best combination of nutrients and was also a variety that did not produce a seed.
That latter part is very important, because comfrey can become an invasive challenge if you use a variety that creates a seed. The plant can grow several feet tall and has large leaves that can block out sun from smaller plants below it, so pick your location wisely. Bocking 14 is propagated through root cuttings that can be purchased in a variety of places. The seller we have had great luck from is this small company on Amazon that sells the Bocking 14 from their family farmstead (affiliate disclosure here). You can see what their cuttings look like in the picture below.
What Else is Comfrey Used For?
Considered a “dynamic accumulator” comfrey extends roots down up to 6 feet in good soil. That’s considerably further than most plants and it allows it to capture nutrients that are otherwise unavailable to most plants except trees. The foliage can then be used to help spread those mined nutrients around to other plants. Comfrey even has the ability to pull out nutrients like iron and calcium from deep clay soils which otherwise tend to be less available to plants. It should be noted that the long roots are one of the reasons you should be very deliberate in where you plant your comfrey as it will replant itself from any leftover roots if dug up.
Comfrey is also a great mulch at the base of fruit trees and supplies a steady set of nutrients as the leaves decompose. To get the most out of your comfrey leaves, you can create a compost tea by cutting the leaves and putting them in a container for a few weeks. This extracts the nutrients from the leaves as they break down and can be poured directly on plants like potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Be prepared for the fact that it will stink as it begins decomposing. It includes numerous trace elements needed by plants such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper, sodium, sulfur, and chromium. Additionally, studies have shown the topsoil under mulched comfrey show a 232% increase in NPK values compared to surrounding soil samples.
Comfrey Is The Right Choice In Today’s World
Based on these facts, it should be clear that comfrey is a plant that every backyard gardener and homesteader should consider for their property. Between the high quality feed replacement, the large biomass the plant produces, and the garden fertilizer uses, the lowly comfrey plant is an unsung hero that can fill in a lot of gaps to becoming more self-sufficient in your backyard homestead.