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Controlled Grazing In The Management Of An Apple Orchard

By: Tony McQuail

There are several advantages of grazing sheep in an apple orchard.

1. They keep the grass clipped low which reduces the population of mice and voles which can do major damage in the winter by girdling trees. Low grass also makes it easier to pick up cider apples.

2. They eat early windfall apples helping to break pest life cycles since early drops often contain insect larvae.

3. Their manure fertilizes the orchard and feeds the earthworms. The earthworms help with disease control by eating apple leaves under the snow and in the spring reducing the amount of scab overwintering.

4. When they rub against tree trunks they knock off loose bark scales which are a habitat for coddling moths.

The disadvantages are that sheep can eat the bark off trees; pull down and eat low branches; and if pasturing too large an area, let weeds grow up and leave most of their manure in their loafing area.

At Meeting Place Organic Farm we've been trying to figure out ways of managing our sheep flock to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems. This year we planted out some new trees and have put a V shaped 3 strand electric fence so we have 3 permanent wires on either side of the row of trees. We planted the rows 90 feet apart so there is lots of room between them for pasture, plus lots of air and light for the trees.

We move the sheep up these pasture strips with portable fencing made using a CordoWynd reel (sold for winding up electrical cords) with three stands of plastic poly wire. This way I can wind up all three strands at once, and on this short a length they don't tangle badly. I have an end post that the wires attach to. After pushing this in at one row of trees, I walk across to the other row putting in 6 plastic posts and hanging the wires as I go. Then I pull the three strand tight and tie them off to the fence at the other row of trees. I give the sheep a fresh block daily and the whole job takes about 10 minutes. They clip the block very thoroughly. The permanent fencing under the new trees did however leave a strip of uneaten sod, so I will have to do some trimming this fall. (An alternative which would avoid this problem would be to place the trees beside a permanent fence and place a wire cage around each tree.) I hope to train the young trees so their lowest branches are protected within the wire V.

In our established orchard on Malling # 7 rootstocks I fenced off 4 rows of trees between permanent fencing and use the same temporary fencing to move them through it. I find that if they are moved daily they do a minimum of damage chewing bark though they still eat the leaves off low branches. The size of the daily block is adjusted according to the volume of grass. If I've miscalculated and given them too little I can give them some more that evening and a larger block the next day. If I've given them too much and they haven't cleaned it up thoroughly I give them a smaller chunk the next day and leave them in the two places so they can clean it up.

This may sound like a lot of work but I think it beats mowing under the trees and sheep pellets are a lot less attractive nesting material for mice and voles than piles of dead grass left by mowing. It also means I look over my sheep and my orchard on a regular basis and the sheep become easier to lead and handle. I've not worried about water because the sheep seem to get enough from the grass and the dew on it. If they were nursing lambs this would be a larger concern.

I try to pasture an area about 3 weeks before harvest. This cleans up the early windfalls, and the grass is short making the picking easier. However, by harvest time the manure will be out of the way. This is another instance where sheep are nicer than cows for orchard pasturing - they also don't break and eat as high branches.

This year the crop of MacIntosh and Spys look good so the system seems to be working. We've had pretty regular rains and for the Macs to be as free of scab as they are is pleasant. If you have questions call me and I will try to share what we've learned so far. Phone me at (519) 528-2493.

Copyright 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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