Farmers have grazed their livestock among trees for centuries. However a general drive to enhance the environment through tree planting has in turn highlighted the potential benefits of agroforestry. Wendy Short reports.
There are a wide range of options which cover agroforestry, says Poppy Frater, senior sheep and grassland specialist at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).
Miss Frater, who co-ordinates an agroforestry livestock producer group in Scotland explains that agroforestry is simply managing trees and livestock to their mutual benefit.
She says: “It can be operated on a large scale and include both native and non-native trees, or it can involve the use of shelter belts, or even hedgerows. It is mainly confined to well-established woodland at present, although some farmers are planning new planting systems for this specific purpose.”
Despite the long history of agroforestry, figures related to grass productivity and livestock growth rates have not yet been collated, although SAC has issued some figures on tree planting costs.
In general, electric fencing is used to contain the sheep and/or cattle, says Miss Frater.
“Electric fencing gives greater control over pasture utilisation. It also puts less strain on the protection around individual trees. Some producers allow the forage to grow fairly high before turnout, while others will maintain a short sward. It can be difficult to set a livestock grazing unit figure because forage volume and quality varies, so it is mostly a question of learning by experience.”
An agroforestry grant towards planting costs is available in Scotland, but cattle have not been included in the scheme, she points out.
“This may change, as some species thrive where cattle graze. They also create micro-habitats with their footprints and their dung can be beneficial. For any class of livestock, it is important to avoid encroaching on peat land and to ensure compliance with any other biodiversity projects.
“I would not expect the system to work on hard hill land; mainly due to the climatic effect on tree establishment and growth rates. However, it is suitable for the moderate uplands and for marginal land. Livestock producers of today must ‘sell their story’ to the public and agroforestry will form part of that story.”
Miss Frater manages the farmer group for Scotland’s Rural Innovation Support Service, which is led by Soil Association Scotland in partnership with a number of other organisations. Here we speak to three farmers involved in the group.
Andrew Barbour, Mains of Fincastle, Pitlochry (Perth and Kinross)
Mains of Fincastle is a 540-hectare (1,334-acre) organic grass/clover farm, producing finished lambs and 18-month-old store cattle from mainly rough grazing.
The farm has used woodland grazing for more than two decades, with an additional area amounting to one-third of the total specifically planted for agroforestry 12 years ago. Roughly 30 per cent is Scots pine, with the remainder other native species, and the livestock also has access to conventional fields. The woodland grazing is utilised by sheep in winter and spring and by cattle in summer and autumn. The only supplementary feed used is a cattle mineral lick.
Mr Barbour, who stocks at an estimated 0.3-0.4 livestock units/ha (0.12-0.16 livestock units/acre), believes if establishment costs can be covered, the system will produce a return on investment for new plantings.
“My aim for the new woodland was to further improve the farm’s carbon footprint, with a view to selling sustainable beef in the future,” says Mr Barbour.
“Cattle are woodland animals and will retreat to the woodland at specific times. A good dog is needed where sheep are grazed over a large area, but the cattle will come out to call.
“The needs of the trees must be taken into account and there will be some compromises to be made. One tip is to avoid feeding cattle around trees in winter because of potential root damage. It is also necessary to give the trees a period of regeneration every now and then. The length of time will depend on age and species.”
Johnnie Balfour, Balbirnie Home Farms, Cupar, Fife
The past five years have seen a change of use for some of the woodland at Balbirnie, which is a 750ha (1,853-acre) arable and grass farm, including 400ha (988 acres) of woodland.
Electric fencing has been installed to include the woodland shelterbelts between arable fields, which are planted with kale or cover crops over winter.
The cows are strip-grazed with access to the trees and supplementary-fed with silage or straw in situ. They are removed in spring three weeks before calving to allow the area to recover, followed by mob grazing the pastures over summer, with the fields then put down to vegetables or cereals. Meanwhile, woodland thinnings are made into woodchip for bedding or burning.
Mr Balfour says: "Figures have shown that it costs four times as much to keep a housed cow, compared with an outdoor animal. The agroforestry system greatly extends the grazing period, thereby reducing inputs, and a percentage of our cattle have never been housed.
"Some of these arable fields have not seen livestock for two decades, but they will provide an excellent entry for a cash crop and there will be savings on fertiliser. Only a fraction of woodland has been utilised to date, but a re-planting programme has already been implemented.
"There can be a mental block among farmers which leads them down conventional routes, but it is important to explore new options."
Nikki and James Yoxall, Howemill, Huntly, Aberdeenshire
Nikki and James Yoxall own 7.2ha (18 acres) of land at Howemill and they also mob graze cattle on numerous parcels of rented agroforestry totalling 72ha (180 acres). Boxed beef is produced from the herd of 10 Shetland and White Galloway cows.
The Yoxalls have off-farm jobs but are keen to expand their farming enterprise and last April set up their own grazing business, Grampian Graziers. Working with local landowners, they integrate their native cattle into existing woodland using an agroforestry approach.
The cattle are contained using electric fencing and grazed in a range of paddock sizes and durations depending on the required outcome for the land. Bales from wildflower meadows are taken to the grazing site, where they are rolled out in strips to distribute seed for enhanced biodiversity on the forest floor.
Grampian Graziers currently holds agroforestry grazing agreements on four farms within a 15-mile radius of home, says Mrs Yoxall, who is studying for a master’s degree in sustainable food and natural resources.
“The cattle are managed with almost zero inputs; we do not provide minerals because nutrients in tree forage are already high and the diversity of pasture and browse meets herd requirements. Faecal egg counts are undertaken to minimise routine worming, thereby limiting the environmental impact of anthelmintics on invertebrates.”
There is evidence to suggest that herd social structure is enhanced when cattle range on wooded pasture, compared with pasture alone, she adds.
“Selling our high welfare beef direct to the customer shortens the supply chain. The herd is profitable and we can see a bright future for our expanding farming enterprise."