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Creating a Savannah

Planting trees was one of the first moves we made, even before the infrastructure installation, that proved relatively challenging.

The problem was to bring the landowners to agree to a relatively radical action. They had to understand the Why behind it all. That meant explaining the theory and application of regenerative grazing and silvopasture in full. Not a simple task to convince someone who had been bailing hay for the past 3 decades to suddenly plant hardwoods in the fields. Planting silvopasture, however, is the obvious first step if you want to get the business growing early (literally).

In an ideal world we may have gone with the Mark Shephard STUN method and created alleys of pasture in between rows of thickly planted food/mast crop canopy. Over-plant, let the weak trees die, and thin out the undesirables. But then we would have to prevent the animals from browsing all our plantings down during their most vulnerable first few years. We couldn't afford to exclude the animals from that much land and significantly reduce our pasture and we definitely couldn't afford that many tree tubes. Because the land doesn't belong to us and therefore isn't completely controlled by us, we had to ultimately compromise. We had to prioritize our goals with the plantings and we didn't want to spend too much money on leased land.

By compromising we had to let go of a lot of benefits. With fewer trees we wouldn't be able to profit from the biodiverse abundance provided by lower story species (such as Hazel, Elderberry, Raspberry) that would benefit the animals, us and wildlife. We also couldn't utilise the wind-breaking and weather-moderating potential of thick rows of plantings. Not being thick enough, the plantings couldn't serve as swales causing rain catchment.

By doing at least some plantings, though, we could still benefit. We would have to allow for losses and plant a bit denser. If we concentrated on larger hardwoods we would have mast and essential shade. When the animals can't move to the trees, move the trees to the animals. As we were stuck with doing relatively limited plantings, we wanted high assurance that those plantings were to be successful, so we decided to go with tree tubes.

We got and planted our trees in the winter. We bought the same species that we found around us, mainly white and red oak and hickories. Rough milled oak was relatively cheap and plentiful (this was before the pandemic) and from a single 10 foot board you can secure a lot of trees in tubes. We could have used Rebar to prevent the cows from breaking the stakes for $3.00 a stake but we had the material already. We read enough to know not to skimp and make pine stakes, these tubes need to stand for years. We set the distance between trees at 50 ft. Not too thick to suppress grass growth and thick enough to provide a few trees per acre. At about $1.50 per bare root sapling and about $3.00 per tube it's a minimal and very effective intervention on your land. It took a couple days, a couple of wagons, a few planting spades and some volunteer help.

Maintaining the trees themselves isn't too much extra work. We had an unusually blustery couple day right after we planted and had to go right back out to re-secure the loose ones. Maintenance has become a part of our daily routine. Rotate the animals and check on the trees.

But how do you maintain the pasture and graze these areas while allowing the trees to grow? You could completely exclude these areas from grazing but then you're going to be doing a lot of cutting brush back. I thought we got out of the business of burning through gloves anyways. A cow can snap even an oak stake with just a nudge, so you can't even give them access unter the polywire to the base of the tree. So our solution was yet again the sheep. They cant harm the tubes or stakes or get past them to the saplings. So we set up the polywire just a bit higher when excluding the trees so the sheep have access but the cows don't. Don't have to electrify it because the animals don't know the difference.

The tubes don't ruin the view.

Fast forward a few years and we've seen about a 70% survival rate overall. We have read about higher success rates. Maybe it's because it's relatively windy where we are? Did the cool season sward out-compete the trees? Having planted the trees so sparsely it became kind of a pain to fence out individual trees and admittedly we, therefore, got lazy. Over the years this definitely contributed to our losses.

So, as this is being written, we are planning part two of our plantings. The goal is to add biodiversity with food/mast species as well as provide wildlife cover. Once the land owners got used to the tree tubes dotting the fields and had a couple years to understand the way we are farming we decided to propose an improvement on our system. This will still not be the ideal scenario of having rows of trees through the fields and reaping the wind-breaking, shade-providing, water-retaining benefits, but it will be a step in the right direction.

We originally, and kind of randomly, did some of the plantings as copses, or small groups of trees. These copses are quite easy to exclude by just encircling them with poly. So we decided to expand around selected trees and create 1-2 copses per acre. This time we will mulch with cheap hay and straw too. This would suppress the grasses while maintaining water infiltration and retention. We will be tubing and staking no differently. There will be 5-6 species per copse and 6-10 individual trees creating a canopy structure: 1-2 large emergent trees, 2-3 medium sized and 4-6 bushes/shrubs. We will stick with oaks and hickories and add persimmons, dogwoods, chestnuts, elders and hazels underneath.

In a few years once the tubes are off we will slowly allow access for all the animals for browsing, grazing, foraging, and enjoying shade and wind protection.

Exciting work! Thanks again for reading.

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