Silvopasture – the best of both

By Alex Heffron

Alex Heffron and cowThere is a debate going on that says we should be afforesting the uplands of Wales, in order to give nature a better chance, sequester carbon and improve drainage downstream, amongst other benefits. I’m in favour of all those reasons, but I don’t think we need to choose from a false dichotomy of trees or livestock; we can have both.

Silvopasture, the grazing of livestock amongst trees, provides many of the benefits of both. Hedgerows and shelterbelts are one thing, and very good at that, but there is also the planting of around 1000 trees per hectare, in strips at roughly 10-25m spacings – either following the contour, keyline, or going in N-S or E-W rows. This allows for easier establishment and management and thanks to the ease and cost of electric fencing we can avoid the need for expensive stock fencing. This can also be combined with arable systems as some farmers have already done in the east of England.

In the early years the grass will need to be either mulched, or kept short via mowing, but eventually, after 5 years or so, the livestock themselves will graze the grass beneath the trees. This isn’t the only approach that can be taken – there are other patterns that can be utilised, but this, from our analysis has the most potential and is the easiest to establish and manage. But some of that will depend on the specific context of the farm and the grazing systems in place. All tree-planting – from hedgerows and shelterbelts, to strips and plantation plantings – should be considered. Each farm should choose the approach that best suits them.

Some farmers might be concerned that they will lose much-needed grass, but the loss in grass is not substantial, and on the contrary the trees should improve grass growth (better soil, drainage, aeration, and shelter from wind) and improve livestock health and performance (trees are mineral-rich and provide much needed shelter from wind and rain). Plus trees can make a substantial portion of a ruminant’s diet; this report from the Forestry Commission suggests around 12.5% of dry matter intake for cows, and around 15% for sheep. It’s still early days, with different pioneering farms trying different approaches, as there are many that can be taken, but it seems obvious already that it will become a win-win-win, for farmer, animal and nature. Can we afford not to do it?

Not only do you get the environmental benefit of the trees but there is also an economic benefit. The trees can be managed, for example, using a sustainable coppicing method to produce firewood, woodchip (think bedding and compost) and also managed for fruit, nuts and no doubt other products too such as timber. And of course we still get the economic, ecological and community benefits that are already derived from livestock.

With a little government funding farmers could be encouraged to take up this practice, and help to bring more trees back to not just the Welsh uplands, but the Welsh countryside in general. But we don’t need to wait for government funding because Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales), already provide grants of at least 60%for tree planting.

It is with Coed Cadw we will be placing an application for tens of thousands of trees to be planted across our farm over the next 5 years or so. It’s a big experiment, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, that hopefully others after us will learn from, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever about the beneficial role they can play in improving our farm from an economic and ecological perspective. Upland farming is not the most profitable form of farming so the extra money provided by this system is sure to be welcome.

It will take some new skills being learnt, or re-learnt, but that’s something farmers have continually had to do anyway as part of a job that in many ways has never changed, and in many other ways is continually changing. Hopefully, talk of the government subsidy to farms that plant trees, sequester carbon, improve water storing, and provide habitat will come to fruition, making silvopasture a no-brainer for farmers on many levels. But even without that subsidy, it makes sense, and for it to be sustainable I think it needs to show it can more than pay its way, otherwise a change of government policy could see the uprooting of the trees planted, which would reverse the benefits. It needs to be maintained long-term. “Pears for your heirs,” as one friend told me recently.

Given the intensity of the debate around ruminants and greenhouse gas emissions, this is one way that farmers can help to nullify that, as several studies show that it’s possible to sequester more carbon than is emitted via silvopasture systems. I think it’s a system where Wales can lead the way, and show to other countries what’s possible. We have plenty of scope to put this method of farming to use and it lends itself well to our landscape. I don’t think it’s a cure-all for all of the environmental challenges we face but along with a return to native, diverse pastures, and an improvement in grazing management, can be a significant step towards a more sustainable and ecologically-sound way of farming.

To find out more about the planting of trees in the uplands of Wales, it’s worth reading this report about the Pontbren Project, a pioneering project led by several farms working together. They experienced economic benefits to their businesses, as well of course, as the environmental benefits.
If you’re interested in discussing this more then comment below and we can chat further about it.

Alex, along with his wife Sam, started Mountain Hall Farm in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire 18 months ago without any previous farming experience. Since then they have been milking cows and letting their animals rule the roost. They run a micro-dairy selling 100% pasture-fed raw Jersey milk and beef directly to their local community. By using the principles of permaculture, holistic management and regenerative agriculture, Alex and Sam hope to build a farm which brings people together through good food with respect for their animals and nature. @AlexHeffron88

Picture: Nigel Pugh

Advertisements

Our fragile food system

Tony Little has been involved in sustainable food and farming for nearly 20 years and was a key member of staff at Organic Centre Wales for 14 of those. He is actively involved in the Organic Growers Alliance and the Community Supported Agriculture Network UK, and recently set up the Sustainable Farming Consultancy.Tony Little

I spend a lot of time thinking about the agriculture in Wales, and I spend a lot of time listening to Welsh Government and other commentators on its future. One word crops up again and again and that word is resilience. And rightly so, for our food and farming system is fragile in the extreme.

Consider this. Practically all Welsh agriculture is based on just three products; lamb, beef and milk, and we export nearly all of it. Any ‘shocks’ to any one of these  – price volatility, collapse of export markets, animal health crises, fluctuations in exchange rates, regulation changes, exit from the EU – have disproportionately larger impacts on Wales compared to other countries with a wider production base. Of course many of these things are not independent of one another, so they can and do happen all at the same time to more than one sector.

In case anyone thinks I’m having go a livestock producers, I’m not. They are vital for nourishing the nation, cycling nutrients on the farm, habitat management, biodiversity and a great deal more. However, if we want a more resilient system, basing it on a very small number of products, whose fortunes are dictated by factors by and large outside our sphere of influence, is not the way I would go about it.

Diversifying the production base by strengthening arable and horticultural production, has to be the way to go, and there is massive potential to do so in Wales. There are over 4,000 ha of Grade 1 and 2 land in Wales, over 95% of which is currently under grass, and many more thousands of hectares of Grade 3 land that could grow crops, albeit in more challenging conditions. We grew crops in these areas in the past, and there is no technical reason why we could not again.

I don’t pretend that it’s easy – I’m in the process of introducing horticulture to an upland sheep system, so I know! Access to machinery, lack of skills and knowledge after a generation of specialised livestock production, the relatively high risk associated of horticultural enterprises and other factors conspire to make to it all rather challenging.

But it is absolutely necessary. No one really thinks the status quo is satisfactory. Over the 14 years I have been working in Wales I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of farmers I’ve spoken to who think that specialised beef and sheep production is a sound foundation for a profitable, and therefore resilient, business, and the annual farm income figures from the Farm Business Survey at IBERS tend to bear me out on this.

If our farming and food businesses are going to live, thrive and survive into the future – and our communities with them – we have to make fundamental changes. We’d be well advised to start now, before the wheels really come off.