Semi-natural grasslands often serve as important reserves of biodiversity. In Europe extensive grazing by livestock is considered an appropriate management to conserve biodiversity value and to limit shrub encroachment. However, little is known about the influence of shrubs on agronomic values. A gradient analysis of shrub-invaded temperate grasslands (from shrub-free to pioneer forest) in Germany was carried out to test the hypothesis that herbage mass and variables describing nutritive value of herbage decrease with increasing shrub encroachment. The herbage mass of dry matter (DM), variables describing the nutritive value of herbage, composition of the vegetation and mean of Ellenberg’s indicator values were analysed with respect to the extent of shrubs. There was a reduction of herbage mass of DM from 3570 to 210 kg ha−1 with increasing shrub encroachment. Metabolizable energy concentration of herbage ranged from 8·9 to 10·2 MJ kg−1 DM and crude protein concentration from 72 to 171 g kg−1 DM, both measures being positively correlated with shrub occurrence. Increasing shrub occurrence was associated with a decrease in water-soluble carbohydrates concentration (from 151 to 31 g kg−1) and a reduction in the indicator ‘forage value’. The results indicate a potentially large agronomic value for shrub-encroached temperate grasslands.