A key component to Sellar Farmhouse Creamery is to develop and manage silvopasture landscapes; an integrated system where trees and pasture are managed to raise livestock. This park-land system has always existed naturally where herbivorous range and under the management of humans is an ancient practice. With examples around the world such as the Dehesa in Spain.
Diversity is something which is lacking in the modern agriculture industry. For efficiency sake, we have moved towards large mono-cultures: why try and manage 10 different farming enterprises when you could just manage one. The problem with this is that it’s contrary to how nature works. Nature never puts all her eggs in one basket, so to speak.
Take our recent rain for example. Getting rain now is great for veggie growers such as Gung Hoe Growers here, but not so good for my lucerne hay grower who has had to turn all his hay into silage as it won’t have time to dry. Rain is always appreciated on this dry continent, but every time it rains it’s of benefit to one farming system and may destroy another. If you only have one farming system, you’re left particularly vulnerable to weather. Having diverse farming systems helps to build a resilient farming business. Enterprises such as livestock, forestry, nuts, fruit, mushrooms etc can all generate income from the same area of land in a silvopasture system.
Nature’s balance also depends on diversity. Many of our pest and diseases tip into a problem when they have access to feast on their favourite food, all laid out paddock after paddock with no predators to stop them. Having a diversity of plant heights, growth seasons, seeding seasons and palatability, builds mutually beneficial relationships. These increase the resilience of the vegetative cover in general to pests, diseases and fire and climatic extremes.
Ruminants, like humans are healthiest when living off a diverse diet. To be able to receive the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbohydrates etc from just a few feed products is near impossible. Supplementation is needed and in many industrial systems it leads to a short life. Cows are natural grazers, unlike their ruminant friend; the browsing goat, who does very well on fibrous trees and shrubs. A well managed, diverse pasture is a great thing for cows to have as their main feed source. However having access to trees and shrubs which have higher mineral contents in very important.
Cows fed mainly tree fodder may struggle to maintain condition. The high fiber and lignin content make for lower digestibility and energy conversion than grasses. However in dry seasons tree fodder can supplement protein and other nutrients to dry pasture. In Central Victoria this is crucial for our hot dry summers.
On a large pasture based system, tree fodder can be difficult to manage. Whether as self feeding; where animals graze directly from trees, often damaging the trees, or human cut-and-carry, both models can be labour intensive to feed a large mob of animals. Developing full property integrated systems take time to establish but have multiple benefits. Working at our scale of the planned herd of 10 milkers, this is very achievable.
When we first bought Berta, our queen cow, and tried to feed her willow she looked at us with disgust: ‘what am I meant to do with this?’ Having grown up on a conventional dairy the idea of eating trees was completely foreign to her. However once Daisy and Millie arrived, she watched them eat willow 2 days in a row, then on the third day she tried it, and since then she has been first in line to get to the willow pile.
According to the fantastic research project Drawdown: ‘the most comprehensive plan ever to reverse global warming’, Silvopasture is ranked #9 in the top 100 solutions to reversing global warming.
‘Research suggests silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. Pastures strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil.
Silvopasture averts and sequesters emissions, while protecting against changes that are now inevitable.’https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/silvopasture
We can also see more tangible effects of managing silvopasture; Shelter for animals, landscape stability by decreasing erosion from wind and water, increasing the cycling of water and nutrients and reducing requirements for cultivation.
On the farm
Here at the farm we are lucky to be riding on the back of existing systems. Currently the cows are grazing in the old plum block. This orchard is being removed as it’s no longer productive for the orcharding business. Rather than cut and burn the stored carbon and nutrients the cows have been absolutely demolishing the trees: very glad we didn’t experiment on the commercial orchard when in leaf! We will be pollarding the old plums to hopefully harvest new growth for years to come. With the arrival of fruit fly to the area managing wild fruit trees is crucial to the organic orchard.
When the orchard trees have no green growth we have had good success with grazing the cows between the fruit tree rows, mowing the grass and taking advantage of the soil which is already well watered and re-mineralised. In the future I’d love to find a system for cutting hay between the rows when the trees are green; the grass needs keeping low for the fruit season but the cows cannot graze in there.
We’ve been planting trees for future resilience. Salix Babylonica (weeping willow) below the leaky dam; the first and last of the willows to have leaves for the season, long soft branches making most of the biomass palatable (greater leaf to wood ratio), very easy to harvest, does not easily spread like its relative, crack willow, and the cows just devour it.
Black wattle is also a favourite among the cows. It’s high tannin content makes it not appropriate as a primary feed, but as a supplementary feed it’s high in protein and has compounds creating an anthelmintic effect; helping to maintain a healthy worm balance. Oak and tagasaste are among some of the other trees we are planning to plant with the intention of fodder harvesting in the future.
This is also a key benefit to the farming co-op model which we have here at Harcourt. Bringing together the old practice of diverse farming enterprises interacting on the one farm, whilst using the modern efficiency of specialisation.
Silvopasture is a long term investment, we may never reap the full rewards of the work on this leased land. But leaving it in an improved, more resilient state than we found it is a founding block for this business.