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Grazing Livestock In The Orchard

Grazing Livestock In The Orchard

Here at Rolling River Farm our orchards and gardens are also pastures. In the spirit of emulating natural environments we have incorporated many diverse animal species in our tree groves, berry patches, gardens and nursery. This can be a complex and challenging endeavor, with timing, species grazed and crop protection all needing careful thought, planning and implementation to be successful. After all there is a reason critters are conventionally on the outside of the fences protecting our crops!  But the benefits that can be gained are tremendous, with the animal’s harvest of forage and the subsequent big savings in mowing labor and fertilizaer alone justifying the initial setup expenditures. Before having our grazing program going we used to spend many hot and sweaty summer days mowing our steep hillside orchards, fighting blackberries and weeds. These same slopes are now happily cropped by our herds of goats, chickens, turkeys and ducks. All these animals in return give freely of their plant and soil nourishing, microbial rich manures, further encouraging the lands growth and abundance.

Less obvious, but equally important, are the benefits animal grazing can have in disrupting pest and disease cycles. One of the most pernicious and hardest to control fruit pests is the coddling moth and its maggots that burrow into the flesh of apple and pear fruit. Damage can be over 95% in many areas with no control, and even active organic protection measures (which can be quite expensive and labor intensive) often leave half the crop damaged. Chemical control requires many sprayings of toxic substances. But voracious grazers, such as goats, sheep or turkeys go straight for the Achilles heel of this pest.  By gobbling down every fallen worm filled fruit as soon as it hits the ground they interrupt its life cycle. The worms are destroyed before they have a chance to crawl out of the fruit and pupate in the soil, which is where they develop and rest before re-emerging as mature moths - ready to lay eggs on your fruit again!

As with any coddling moth control it can take a few years of such management before the population is reduced to a negligible level, but the benefits start to show by the second year. Over the years  I have seen several old abandoned   orchards that have virtually no codling moth damage, completely due to the fact that herds of deer (and sometimes bear), or horses, cows or sheep grazed below the trees eating every fruit that falls. As a matter of fact our current property was in such wild (human abandoned) management when we arrived, with hardly a worm to be found in the fruit of the old apple and pear trees. Being ambitious as we are (were!), we fenced out the bears and deer and planted many more fruit trees, and then watched with horror as every year we had more and more worm damage! In reaction we developed a plan and released trichogamma wasps every week, put out pheromone traps and lures (both expensive) and attempted to pick up every fallen fruit as quickly as possible(a lot of time bent over with a tired back). Even after all this we would often have 50% damage. Finally we came to our senses and decided to replicate nature. Animals love fruit! Even a green, half ripe, wormy or rotten apple will be slicked down faster than you can bend down to pick it up and put in a bucket. When I let my animals out to graze in the morning they eagerly run right to the currently ripening fruit trees to see what has fallen overnight. Many other fruit eating insect pests are similarly controlled by grazing.


Grazing also interrupts disease cycles in similar ways. With our goats vacuuming down every prematurely fallen leaf, spores of peach leaf curl, mildew, scab, brown rot, etc. don’t have a chance to spread themselves. The digestive tracts of ruminants such as sheep and goats are fantastic compost systems, turning contagious litter into nutrient rich fertilizer pellets.

The question of what animals to use where depends on many factors and demands a full evaluation of the crops and products you wish to raise, and lifestyle considerations including time and investment available. As an example here is what we do;

Basic setup- Our landscape is divided by cross fencing into different management areas. These include vegetable gardens, potato and grain field, orchards, mixed berries and orchard, and nursery grounds. Each has its own animal rotation that strives to meet the grazing and pest control objectives without causing significant damage to the crops involved.  Each animal has its own shelter and pen that is adjacent to the areas they will graze. All animals have several (usually 3) different pastures to be rotated through.  For livestock to have a long term positive effect on a landscape they must be rotated, with pastures fully growing back between grazing cycles.

Orchards- Most of our orchards are fenced into 3 separate areas where we graze our adolescent goats (from weaning at 3 months to 1 year old) and our chicken flock. We only use young goats, as when full grown they reach too high up in trees for our intensive orchard management.  Sheep are traditionally used for this purpose also.  To protect fruit trees we trim off limbs below 5 feet and wrap the bark with 1” chicken wire. Small young trees need a more extensive wire cage until large enough. Ideally replanting is done with large potted trees that can survive with just a stake and bark wrap.

Goats do a fantastic job mowing brambles, grass and all manner of rank plants that I used to consider weeds, as well as fallen fruit and leaves from the trees. The quality of graze for the goats is very high, making for excellent nutrition during this important growth period.   The chickens have a great time grazing the grasses and legumes, scratching up bugs, aerating the soil and eating fallen fruit. The quality of their eggs can’t be beat!

Mixed Berry and Orchard- For berry plantings we have chosen turkeys as our primary grazer. Turkeys are voracious eaters of fallen fruit and are heavy grazers, mowing a ground cover to near lawn type perfection. They do not eat the leaves of shrubs or trees though, making them compatible with low growing plants that can’t be trained above the reach of ruminants such as goats and sheep. We have our berry plantings cross fenced so we may rotate them out of plantings when fruit is ripening. As soon as a harvest ends they are rotated back in to eat any diseased or moldy fruit, thus stopping the dissemination of spores.

We live in a hot summer area and have interspersed our berry plantings with fruit trees to cast some shade to prevent sun burning of the more tender berries. The turkeys are very capable and willing to devour any fallen apples, cherries etc. from these trees, maintaining our overall sanitation goals. And the family will testify that fruit and greens fattened turkeys are the best!

We have organized our annual and perennial vegetables and fruits into separate fenced gardens to accommodate rotational grazing by chickens, turkeys or ducks at the right time.

Gardens – Different plant types are segregated into different gardens, enabling chickens, turkeys or ducks  to graze at their own proper time. The best time to run poultry into a garden is right after a crop has been harvested, or just before a cover crop is to be turned in for replanting. It’s very satisfying to let a hungry flock of birds into a lush cover crop a couple of weeks before planting and watch them eat the greenery down leaving the ground plastered with manure. These are omnivorous animals sure to gobble up all the tasty bugs and slugs they discover along the way too!

Nursery-Our nursery stock is all grown in pots that are on benches propped a foot off the ground. We graze our flock of ducks heavily throughout our nursery where they graze the ground cover around the benches and constantly hunt for insects and slugs. While most nurseries rely on herbicides and insecticides to solve these problems, our grazing ducks are the backbone of our control. Good eggs and roasters are icing on the cake.

Large nut tree plantings and woodlots- Outside our more intensively managed orchard and garden zones we graze our mature goats (does, buck and pack wethers) in different pastures of both native forest and plantings of walnut, chestnut and nut pines. They do a great job of keeping down the underbrush (and fire hazard) in these woodlot settings, and it makes excellent forage for them. We protect the young trees the same as in our orchards, wrapping the bark with chicken wire, with the first scaffold limbs starting about a foot higher than with the younger goats.

This is a brief overview of the subject, with the many facets of raising and managing livestock outside the scope of this article. But whether it is a couple of chickens scratching around amongst your fruit trees, or a comprehensive collection of creatures rotating through acres of crops, animals can enrich the health and vitality of your plantings, and diet, as well as cut down on your labor by happily doing many of the maintenance jobs you used to do yourself. And don’t forget to invite a little wildlife in too. Placing swallow, bat and house wren nest boxes around your place can add many bug hungry appetites, and the joy of living in a landscape full of life!

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