Animals and fruit trees

Do you have animals around your fruit trees?

We’d never grazed animals in the orchard before (apart from the ones we don’t want, like kangaroos, rabbits and hares), until Tess Sellar joined us here at the farm and brought her lovely dairy cows.

Tess and Ant (who now runs the orchard on the farm) have been experimenting with grazing the cows in various orchards.

In winter when there are no leaves on the tree it’s wildly successful, with the cows making good use of the feed (saving Ant having to mow), leaving behind lots of fertiliser, and only causing minimal damage to the trees.

Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser
Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser

However in summer they quickly discovered that it’s a different story when the trees have leaves – turns out cows absolutely LOVE fruit tree leaves.

One of Tess' cows munching down on an apricot tree
One of Tess’ cows munching down on an apricot tree

If you can get the logistics right to get the benefits without the damage, fruit trees and grazing animals are a natural mix, and in fact have a long tradition of being farmed together.

But it’s a very uncommon practice in modern orchards, and so we’ve been glad to be part of the ANOO network (the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) to learn from the experience of other small-scale organic orchardists – because that’s exactly the experience we can then bring to you to try out in your backyards/small farms.

Within the ANOO network there are growers using sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and geese in their orchard, and every year it’s a hot topic of conversation at the conference.

Here’s a couple of things we’ve learned so far.

Phil Marriot has been grazing Shropshire sheep in his organic orchard. Phil finds that using the Shroppies to control the weeds under his trees brings great benefits – keeping the grass short and thereby helping to put more carbon into the soil, providing free nutrition for the trees delivered exactly where it’s needed, helping to control pests and diseases, cleaning up waste fruit from the ground, and of course converting waste (grass, fruit) into useful products like meat and wool.

Sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Shropshire sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Photo: Phil Marriot

While generally happy with the benefits, Phil warns that large animals will routinely eat the bottom metre or so of the foliage from both his cherry and lemon trees (as you can in the photo above).

He’s also spent a few years building up a herd of quiet, well-behaved animals that get to go in the orchard – any naughty ones are immediately banished, before they can spread their bad habits to their buddies.

Matthew Tack from Our Mates Farm in Tassie runs Wiltshire Horn sheep under his apple trees, and returned from a trip away to find this damage (below).

Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk. Photo: Matthew Tac
Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk.
Photo: Matthew Tack

Matthew and his wife Coreen are big fans of using animals with fruit trees, but warn of the dangers of letting the animals run short on minerals. The sheep were left in an area that they thought would have been big enough to feed them for 2 weeks.

“It goes to show how important minerals are! These trees fortunately are well established and should recover. Most of this damage is from last year’s wethers.”

One of the other big issues with keeping animals with fruit trees is protecting them from predators – but more on that in another blog.

If you’re interested in having animals around your fruit trees, we wrote Fruit Tree Care for Animal Lovers just for you! It will guide you through the pros and cons of including various animals and helps you figure out which will suit you best.

2 thoughts on “Animals and fruit trees”

  1. Thanks Katie and Hugh.

    We have run sheep in the orchards over the years but always give them a mineral block for a couple of weeks leading up to them going in or they literally bolt for the bark of the trees. I like the comment about culling sheep that don’t play by the rules. Great tip.

    We also ran 2 quiet old horses behind 2 high wires between the orchard rows. This worked really well, as they would reach under the fence for the grass closer to the trees, but not over the top to grab leaves. I wonder if this would work for cattle too?

    I’ve pulled out the orchard plan you drew up for me a couple of years ago and implementing it (kids grown, menopause done, brain back!). Thanks so much. The orchard is looking so much better and hopefully will produce mightily this summer.

    Cheers Celia

    1. Hey Celia, thanks for the comment and great to hear from you! Thanks for the tips on the horses, that sounds like a great strategy. Glad the orchard plan is about to come into its own, good luck for this season’s harvest, hope it’s a cracker!

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