Pairing agroforestry with livestock: the major benefits

Pairing agroforestry with livestock: the major benefits

‘Ecology’ is the study of relationships between plants, animals, people and the environment, with a specific focus on how these elements work together. ‘Agroecology’, then, is the application of these ecological concepts to farming, specifically: using nature and natural relationships to boost your farm’s yields, productivity and more.

We have a lot of faith in agroecology, and there’s evidence to suggest that, by making agroecological practices more mainstream, we could make our food and farming systems more sustainable and healthy. It doesn’t have to be complicated to get involved in agroecological methods, either. In fact, agroforestry – the process of combining trees with crops or livestock – is something you can get started with straight away, according to farmer Nikki Yoxall. Nikki runs Howemill Farm and Grampian Graziers, and has been using agroforestry on her farm for over two years. We talked to her about what her experience of this nature-friendly farming practice has been like, the benefits to her cattle and more below…

How did you get started using agroforestry on your farm?

It was actually out of necessity, to begin with. When we acquired Howemill it was half covered with woodland, so in our case, using agroforestry made practical sense: the decision was about working with the land we had.

Living their best (natural) life

However, we quickly saw the benefits of farming with trees. Placing our cattle in the woods enabled us to give our cows healthy, natural lives without compromising our land’s existing biodiversity, and other perks – such as shelter and access to natural nutrients – has made our use of agroforestry a real success, so far. Here are just some of the practice’s biggest benefits.

Benefit 1: Trees encourage natural behaviours in livestock

Access to trees encourages your livestock – in our case, cattle – to exhibit natural behaviours, which is great for them in many ways. For instance, our cows can rub up against our trees to maintain their coats and take care of their skin: helping them to shed any old hair and/or dead skin that may be bothering them, which in turn, keeps their stress levels low. The ability to do this is particularly useful for them in the spring, when their winter coats are coming out and they’re desperately in need of a twiggy, bark-y hairbrush!

They have plenty of options to choose from, too. There’s a lack of natural straight lines in nature, especially when it comes to trees – which grow at different heights, widths, and angles - meaning that, with all of the varied species we have planted in our woodland, our cows are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding the perfect tree to scratch up against.

A happy herd

Trees are also a brilliant tool for mediating social hierarchies in your herd. Cattle in a ‘silvopasture’ environment (the term for integrating livestock and trees) have more stable group relationships, because they can get space and shield themselves when needed. As a prey species, if cows can hide behind trees – using them as barriers – when they’re not getting along with others in the herd, this can help both them and the rest of the cattle to relax.

Because of the neutralising environment trees create, we make sure to introduce any new cows to the rest of our cattle in one of our wooded areas, so they can protect themselves using our trees while the herd establishes the pecking order. We also make sure to get any new calves into our woodland as quickly as possible after they’re born, as the trees, shrubs and hedges provide excellent protection against the elements.

Which leads me on to another major benefit of combining agroforestry with livestock – temperature control. Thanks to our trees, our cows don’t have to waste a lot of energy trying to cool themselves down when they’re too hot or vice versa. In the summer, for instance, our trees provide them with shade, helping them to avoid getting heat stressed. Alternatively, in the winter, these same trees also provide shelter, protecting them against the extremely cold winters we experience up in Scotland. Manual temperature control, without the help of trees, requires a lot of energy from cows, so by exposing our cattle to a wooded environment, we’re able to save them a lot of energy. This, in turn, supports our profitability, as our herd can maintain their growth rates instead of investing their resources into staying warm or cool.  

That hits the spot…

Benefit 2: Agroforestry promotes biodiversity

Trees are also excellent when it comes to making your farm more biodiverse, particularly if you go about creating ‘edges’. This is how we refer to the plants and natural areas that link up our farm and cordon off certain sections, e.g. through hedges or woodland scrub.

Don’t underestimate the magic potential of these edges! These thriving intersections – a favourite for birds, insects and mammals (such as pine martens and foxes) alike – are:

  • A valuable food source: as they provide seeds, fruit and more to the wildlife visiting your farm
  • A means to travel safely throughout your land, enabling animals to stick around for longer: by creating protective ‘corridors’ for them to travel through
  • A cosy habitat: as they can be used as a shelter in the rain, wind or shine.

Along with planting edges, we’ve used agroforestry elsewhere to attract biodiversity to our land. For instance, we’ve put in a range of different plants on our farm’s steeper ground – which is unsuitable for grazing – to, once more, help us accommodate the diverse wildlife found throughout the Scottish Uplands.

Benefit 3: Trees provide access to a range of nutrients

Soil is amazing in many ways, and one of those ways is that it contains plenty of useful nutrients, which often cannot be accessed through shallower-rooted grasses or other plants in your farm’s sward. With trees, however, you can access them, thanks to their roots. These reach deep down into the soil profile and draw up these hard-to-get nutrients, which your cows can then benefit from by munching on your trees’ leaves.

Some trees also have high levels of chemicals like tannins. These act as natural antioxidants: giving our farm’s foliage an even more fantastic edge.

Because of our nutrient-rich woodland, not only are our cattle happy and healthy, we also save money, as we never have to buy in any minerals, licks or supplements for our herd. Our trees take care of everything for us.  

Getting a daily dose of 'moo-trients'

What trees should you plant (and where)?

At Howemill, we plant a lot of native broadleaf species, and recommend:

  • Ash and rowan trees: Our cattle really like to eat these, and they’re a great source of food for birds and other animals!
  • Aspen trees: This type of tree is important to our local environment, and there are some great projects to bring more aspen back to Scotland (hence why we’re doing our bit by planting them on our land, too)
  • Willow trees: These have loads of health benefits for cattle, in part due to the salicylic acid they contain, which helps give animals healthy skin and hair. Willow trees also contain a natural pain-reliever, which means our cows can self-medicate when needed by chomping on their leaves
  • Birch trees: These are great for browsing and turning into “scrub”, which, in turn, creates more edges on our farm
  • Hawthorn trees: These are high in zinc in the spring, which is another brilliant mineral for animals and a great food source for birds
  • Caledonian pines and Coniferous trees such as Scots Pines: these are brilliant for creating sheltered areas on your farm, especially useful during the colder months.

The berries on a rowan tree (otherwise known, to our cattle, as ‘dessert’)

Whatever trees you choose to plant, consider your farm’s particular environment and select species that you know will thrive in, and benefit, your local area. After choosing, also ensure that you plant different tree species together to create a mixed woodland. Having a range of trees at close hand (or hoof) is important, as it will allow your cattle to access everything they need – including food and shelter – with ease.

Considering the climate through agroforestry

There’s a strong connection between climate change and farming agroecologically, too. We allow our cattle to live the most natural lives possible - gaining their food and shelter from the trees and plants we have positioned around our land - as not only do we think that this helps them thrive, it also cuts down on our carbon footprint.

On average, a hectare of woodland locks up more greenhouse gases than a hectare of farmland emits, and using agroforestry can increase land productivity by up to 40%, at the same time as locking up carbon. On top of this, trees on farms can reduce floods and drought, benefit wildlife, and protect the soil. With all of this in mind, it’s clear that, going forward, agroforestry will be a key way in which we in the farming community address the climate crisis, while starting to build a more sustainable farming future.

You don’t need to wait to start farming with trees, either

If you’ve got trees, you can try agroforestry! Though the narrative around agroforestry is quite focused on planning, funding and strategy, if there are already trees on your farm, you can begin right away and start experimenting with what you have. For instance, if you’ve got a little woodland, see if you can get your livestock in there once or twice a year, for a couple of days in the spring and autumn. Monitor what happens - see what works and what doesn’t – and expect some trial and error. It’s all part of the process!

More trees, please

With agroforestry, you don’t have to spend loads of money or have a grant to get started. If you have trees, you can begin now. In fact, you’ll probably end up wondering why you didn’t take the leap earlier.