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.

Field Trips Are Fun

Field trips to other people’s properties are one of the most effective ways of learning about farming (apart from actually doing it for a few years, of course).

Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie
Ant at his first ANOO conference, with Hugh and Katie

We’re just back from ANOO 2019, the fifth conference of the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists.

We went back to the roots by returning to Tassie, where ANOO was born back in 2015, the brainchild of Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics. It’s a pretty casual group – no committee, no office bearers, no bank account, and is based on two principles: it’s for certified organic commercial growers, and it’s a collaborative, information-sharing space.

Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith's Apple Shed, in the Huon valley
Organic orchardists having a round table discussion at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, in the Huon valley

Even though no-one’s a complete expert, ANOO is a gathering of farmers who are problem solving every day to grow the best fruit they possibly can.

We all face the same issues and problems, but everyone puts their own interpretation on them and solves them in their own unique way, like Simon, who uses a flame thrower in his orchard to get rid of last year’s leaves and the Black spot spores they carry, without only minimal damage to the understorey – a brilliant solution!

Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard
Simon demonstrating the flamethrower he uses to kill black spot spores in his orchard

Sometimes the learning comes from noticing the differences between the farms we visit and our own. And because ANOO is set up on the principle of openness and information sharing, we get to see and hear about everyone’s mistakes, as well as their successes.

Simon's undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy
Simon’s undulating orchard on the side of several hills had Ant jumping for joy

In Tassie some of the challenges most growers face is too much vigour in the trees, and too much grass in the orchard. We wish! It’s such a contrast to our semi-arid growing conditions, and our relatively low soil carbon levels.

So it’s reassuring to benchmark ourselves against others and and assess our yields, fruit quality, and disease management against what other people are getting. Ant should feel rightly proud of the success he’s achieved with Tellurian Fruit Gardens with a minimal amount of water, and good soil and nutrition management.

Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates' Farm in Geeveston
Ant giving the pigs what they love at Our Mates’ Farm in Geeveston

We saw lots of examples of animals in orchards, which gave Ant the chance to compare the different management techniques he needs to use to look after his animals in our drier and more fragile environment.

The greatest value of ANOO (or other similar networks, like Mel talked about in her blog about the Deep Winter Agrarians gathering) is having a peer group of like-minded people who “get” what you’re talking about.

There’s not many places in the world we can have in-depth conversations about Codling Moth or Black Spot without the eyes of the person you’re talking with quickly glazing over!

Where are my bloody multigrips?
Where are my bloody multigrips?

Without fail, we learn something new to bring back for the farm, and for our Grow Great Fruit members, and this year was no exception – we’re buzzing with new ideas to share.

CSA – big thanks!

Gidday out there!

As I write this the correllas, galahs and cockatoos and cacophony of other birds, dogs, cows and who knows what else are banging around and the sun is on my face.  Its a perfect autumn day, the grass is growing and covering what was dust almost a month ago. The dust of green feels like a sigh of relief; and the ever hovering thought: ‘will it rain??’ diminishes slightly.  I am reminded just how quickly we can be turned to the present when it feels do-able, ok and not that it will all collapse and die if you don’t tend to it.  

This weather is also perfect planting out weather – we need to get everything we can in the ground before the earth cools down and hibernates for the winter.  We need everything to get its grow on NOW so we can harvest it throughout winter/spring. If we leave it too late the plants/ seedlings will sit there and not grow and take up precious space not doing anything…which might seem not such a worry but on our scale and with our intensiveness this is a factor we try to eliminate as much as possible.  If you can hear a thread of anxiety running through my words you’d be completely correct.  As much as I know we do as much as we can; and every year (remember we only get one crack a year at each season!) we improve – these windows of transition are still tricky for us to juggle! There’s days I feel in the flow and then there’s days I try so hard to get my head around it that I think I’m actually ridiculously unproductive which elevates any overwhelm I already have lurking in the background!! We have a massive to-do list that lives on a white board in the shed and is pretty much our brains combined into gung hoe…sometimes i find it helpful and at other times its just TOO MUCH! as pictured here 😉

Ah well…is life, no?  We’re never completely ‘all over it’ are we, and as I heard in a podcast interviewing Mary Oliver recently, she mentioned how important it is to leave space to accommodate chance… I do believe that if we so perfectly organise our lives there is no chance for the unknown and spontaneous, and indeed isn’t that what breathes life into our steps?

The magpies are swooping out of a big gum I sit and type under, they’re singing and uplifting the spirit.  As the seasons roll on by we see the transition – the garlic is all mulched its strong green leaves are poking out of its bed of straw…and in the same moment growth has slowed and it is harder to get the mass bulk we need for boxes, caterers, cafes and restaurants so there is a glimmer in the distance of Sas and me too slowing down.  We will finish our seasonal boxes in early June for a few months, (but still continue with wholesale) so we can bunker down with the season and take stock, regain energy needed for spring/summer/autumn.  We will start with the morning sun soon rather than meeting with the moon at the beginning and end of our days, yay!

As a celebration we are holding with Ant (from Tellurian Fruit Gardens) a casual farm tour and shared potluck dinner with members of our hybrid CSA box scheme on Saturday 8th June. We will be sending out invites to everyone who has eaten and travelled the seasons with us via the electronic mail – via mailchimp – so keep an eye out y’all – and often Mailchimp can go into junk or promotions folders – so please keep an eye out in these too, we don’t want anyone to think they haven’t been invited!!! There is a registration for the event (in the email you will receive!) so we can make sure we have enough seats, toilets, water and parking space so make sure you sign up if you’re intending on joining us 🙂


We are so grateful for those in our community who support us and what we’re aiming to do in building stronger, local food systems and building soil. We understand that it takes a certain amount of understanding and tweaking of what we mostly call ‘normal’ life to live in sync with the food we have available to us in each season as its so easy to not live this way.  So in celebration of you, and for for us to celebrate the earth and everything that comes from it, we would love to show you with a short tour where the food is grown and any questions you have, and then sit around a fire, or in the shed and do what people have done for millennia by celebrating with food, together. Pretty simple, but generally it’s what is the golden ticket we reckon. 

So with that, may you be enjoying these cooler days of green and red and brown and gold and be reminded of this wisdom so beautifully penned by Wendell Berry from his poem Rising : (bearing in mind man equals all peoples 🙂 

But if a man’s life 
continues in another man, 
then the flesh will rhyme 
its part in immortal song. 
By absence, he comes again. 

There is a kinship of the fields 
that gives to the living the breath 
of the dead. The earth 
opened in the spring, opens 
in all springs. Nameless, 
ancient, many lived, we reach 
through ages with the seed.

In peace, Mel (and Sas)