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How trees could change farming as we know it

Changing farming with trees

Improving productivity on your farm is always a challenge. You try finding efficiencies in process, investing in new machinery, chasing the 2% increase in yield, or the 3% savings in labour. Sometimes you may have to push your soil or farming system harder than you would like to, just to stay in business. The environment and high production are often seen as competing and incompatible. Many debates in farming become terribly polarised, organic vs intensive, no till versus ploughing.

But there may be a third way. A farming development that brings a wide range of benefits to both the individual farm and to the wider environment. This potential solution is Agroforestry. A practice of farming that combines trees and livestock or crops together.

To demonstrate the advantages of this practice the Soil Association, alongside other leading practitioners in the Farm Woodland Forum, have published a new handbook. This Agroforestry Handbook takes you through a range of different ways to farm with trees and looks at a variety of different tree species you could consider on your farm.

Download the handbook here.

The benefits of agroforestry include:

  • Healthier soil
  • Cleaner water
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Flood mitigation
  • Greater biodiversity
  • Opportunities for farmers to increase productivity, improve animal welfare and reduce inputs.

Choosing what is right for your farm

Farming with trees is no silver bullet, they bring complexity and diversity into what may currently be a highly specialised operation. They require investment up front and development of new skills and maybe new markets. And they will probably result in higher labour costs.

Choosing what is right for any particular farm is not easy and depends on enterprise, soil, geography and potential markets. But overall agroforestry systems are often more than 30% more productive than monocultural systems. So, although more complicated, in the long term they can be productive, profitable and resilient.

Silvopasture: Livestock and trees

Here is one example taken from the newly published Agroforestry Handbook, in which Dr Tim Pagella of Bangor University outlines the benefits of integrating trees in livestock farming (also known as Silvopastoral systems). This shows that even if the trees were not bringing in an income of their own they can still have significant financial benefits. If you add in revenue from timber, crop, or forage the benefits increase even more. 

The benefits of agroforestry to animals:

  • Dr Pagella writes “In areas with high exposure to wind silvopastoral systems can provide substantial shelter to livestock. Livestock need significantly more energy to maintain their condition in exposed conditions. ”Access to shelter means they use less energy to maintain core body temperature.
  • This resulting in lower feed costs and higher animal welfare.
  • These benefits can increase the profitability of the farm. For example, sheltered areas can contribute to 17% estimated increase in dairy milk production. For sheep, good shelter provision can enable liveweight gains as large as 10–21%.

The benefits of agroforestry to the soil fertility:

  • Capturing nutrients leached below the grass rooting zone and return them to surface soil via litter and root turnover.
  • Improving the soil holding capacity for water and nutrients.
  • Limiting compaction by animals (poaching) and increase infiltration.
  • The root systems significantly reduce soil loss from erosion.
  • Under elevated stress conditions (such as drought) trees invest in their mycorrhizal associations and can scavenge water and nutrients from deeper within the soil.

Download the handbook

If you want to read more examples like this one you can get a free copy of the new handbook here