The apple orchard is about 20 acres and includes 525 mature semi-dwarf trees and 600 semi-dwarf and dwarf apple trees planted over the last three years. Prior to my purchase of the orchard in November 2015, it was managed with heavy chemical usage which included herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. No IPM methods were used. Since my purchase, I have used no synthetic chemicals and have focused on rebuilding the health of the ecosystem obviously including the rhizosphere. The health of the orchard has begun to turn around. Some of the practices implemented have been diverse understory plantings, use of products to stimulate the health of the plants and soil, application of over 40 dump truck loads of wood chips and compost, aggressive tree pruning to open the airflow, consulting work with regenerative specialists, etc.
This project will focus on building a polyculture system within an orchard to increase orchard health, reduce outside inputs of nutrients and pest control products while simultaneously producing additional revenue streams. Hogs and chickens will be rotated through an apple orchard to increase soil fertility, reduce pest and disease pressure and reduce mowing needs. The animals will also provide a way for orchard waste products such as cider pulp and windfall apples to become fertilizer as well as saleable meat. This will be a two year study in order to measure differences in soil fertility, pest pressure levels, disease levels and profitability of the orchard-raised meat production. This project is meant to explore a scalable and viable alternative to chemically dependent monoculture orchards.
Primary Objectives that can be easily controlled and measured
1.) Increase soil fertility – includes improved CEC, fertility levels, organic matter content 2.) Reduce mowing and eliminate weed competition
3.) Provide an additional, viable revenue stream by using resources primarily available onsite using minimal outside inputs.
Secondary Objectives that can be measured but cannot be completely controlled (meaning that there could be other influences on the measurements)
1.) Reduce apple scab
2.) Reduce pest pressure – primarily apple maggot fly, codling moth, plum curculio
The project is being done with the intention of eventually decreasing outside inputs (fertilizers, pest and disease control) while increasing the salable product of the farm by creating an ecosystem. It should be noted that fresh market apples are very difficult to grow in humid regions such as the Midwest without the use of synthetic chemicals.
The chickens are being rotated through the orchard with the emphasis on late spring and early summer when the primary apple pests are emerging from the top couple of inches of the soil or coming in from outside the orchard. Grazing to replace at least some mowing is an added benefit and the overturning, disturbance or consumption or any remaining leaves or windfall apples that harbor apple scab is an additional benefit. The effect on the soil is also being measure because the goal is also to reduce the need for outside fertilizers. Although there are some more details to work out, this is looking like a very viable and effective project for growers. Free ranging as opposed to using fully enclosed chicken tractors is definitely looking to be the most effective on several levels. One movable chicken “house” was built on an old trailer and utilized this last year for the second batch of birds and more are being built this spring that will be movable, but not built on a trailer. These will be pictured in the final report along with costs associated.
Five feeder pigs were utilized with two different breeds being compared. After another year of comparisons, this data and recommendations will all be available. The Iowa Farm Supply shelters along with the Premier Fencing and solar chargers have worked very well as far as keeping the pigs enclosed and making it feasible for one person to get the pigs moved on their own. In the spring, the pigs are fenced into long rows in the understory and given free choice mineral in order to reduce rooting. This has been fairly successful although it is quite necessary to keep them moving as soon as they start rooting too much. The pigs are moved to another section of the property 90 days prior to harvest. This is variable depending on when the variety is to be harvested. They are then moved back into the orchard section as soon as a variety has been harvested. They do well cleaning up windfalls and keeping the land grazed although this can be a bit tough to manage because, again, they do need to be moved when too much rooting happens. The pork is extremely marketable even in a rural area. It is recognized as being very flavorful since the pigs are pastured and finished on free choice apples. The pigs also do a nice job of helping fallen leaves to be decomposed, buried or eaten which will hopefully reduce apple scab innoculum.
The results will all be available after next year’s pest and disease measurements to see if it appears 2018’s animals had an effect on 2019. Information on soil and meat profitability will also be included.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Grandview participated in the Sustainable Farm Tour in Langlade County. Attendees were primarily NOT farmers, although some farmers attended as well. More structured tours will be set up over the course of the next couple of years as more actual data is available from the project and as some of the kinks are ironed out. A report will also be published on the Grandview Orchard website for anyone to access. Tours and demonstrations will also be offered through the Organic Fruit Growers Association for interested participants. The goal is to figure out as much information as possible to help other growers implement useful practices on their farms.
This project will have significantly more information once the second year is complete and the information will be summarized to include both years. The first year of this project went well overall, but some modifications are being made because of the learning process. There are two types of animals being rotated and a number of parameters are being measured which will be compared with data collected in 2019 and conclusions and recommendations will be reported.
The first group of ninety Cornish Rock cross broiler chickens were raised in chicken tractors that were moved twice daily and they were grown out to nine weeks. The birds foraged very well and stayed healthy. The birds were easily sold as whole and half birds for $4.25 per lb. Being in a more rural area, the market for the birds at this price was a concern, but the demand was certainly there. While this method of growing out the birds was successful as a means to grow out birds for market, the birds simply did not cover the amount of ground one would want to see for pest control, increased fertility, mowing, turning over of leaves for apple scab prevention, etc. It took one hour per day to care for the birds and the amount of ground covered was very minimal. I think this could be a very good system in a smaller orchard that is on flatter ground. Also, 30 birds per tractor put too much pressure on the understory vegetation even with being moved twice a day. The second set of 70 birds were straight run Freedom Rangers and they were truly free range. A fully enclosed “house” with roosting bars was built on a trailer and they were put back in at night. This system worked extremely well. The birds did an outstanding job of foraging and did a very effective job of keeping the vegetation “mowed” in the areas that they were in. In order to cover a larger area and be more effective at foraging the target pests and provide fertility that is more spread out, the number of chickens and enclosed chicken “houses” which will allow for true free ranging during the day and full enclosure at night will be increased for 2019 in order to try to determine a better stocking rate for peak pest pressure times.
Five feeder pigs were rotated through the orchard as well. The shelters and fencing systems including solar chargers worked very well. It was all very feasible for one person to move the pigs. It was, of course, easier with two people but very doable with one person. Most of the under story was covered by the pigs in the spring except for areas that had newly planted trees. The amount of rooting was minimal with supplementing the animals additional mineral. However, it was indeed necessary to keep a close eye on them and move them as soon as rooting began to increase in their enclosed area. Unfortunately, there was not much difference noted in the Idaho Pasture Pig as opposed to the other pigs as far as rooting. The IPP is supposed to be a better grazer/minimal rooter, but a difference was not noted. The feeder pigs are also more expensive to purchase and did not reach the desired hanging weight. After another year, all of the data on feed, hanging weight, revenue will be reported and compared with the Duroc crosses. In the fall, the five pigs did a good job with cleaning up the windfall apples which was desired for control of codling moth and apple maggot as well as removing apple scab innoculum. However, 5 pigs was not enough to completely clean up the orchard.
As far as turning over, eating or disrupting leaves that could have scab innoculum, the pigs did a good job. They were more effective than the chickens at this task. Also to be noted, the pastured pigs finished on free choice apples were in demand with consumers and the pork was sold both in halves, wholes and in individual cuts. This data will be added for the final report.
This project has generated a lot of informal discussion among other growers of fruit who are working to integrate livestock. As this project develops and generates actual data this next year on pest and disease suppression plus profitability (both of possible reduced orchard inputs and sales/profit margins of meat), I hope to see parts of this implemented on other farms and I am optimistic that others will improve upon or expand on these efforts.
My very preliminary recommendations would be:
Let the birds free range instead of keeping them enclosed in chicken tractors.
Use primarily Cornish Rock crosses. They still foraged well since they were not given free choice grain and their rate of gain was much better.
At this time, I do not see the Idaho Pasture Pig offering the advantages that I had hoped it would offer. I think it would be very difficult for one to be as profitable with this breed and they did not seem to offer the grazing-only foraging (no rooting) that I had hoped for.
I see the chickens being a very manageable and beneficial animal for orchardists to utilize in their systems with the pigs being more difficult. I think the chickens are offering better synergy to the orchard ecosystem (more spread out fertility, better and more targeted pest control) while the pigs are slightly more difficult to manage but are an excellent way to make use of waste product (windfall apples). For operations that have pick your own or onsite visitors, the pigs are extremely popular and visitors are amazed that pastured pigs do not smell and they are happy animals that run around and are friendly. This has been an amazing learning tool for the public as they think about where their food comes from.
I would also highly recommend the fencing system that I have been using for the pigs. Very effective and easy to use.