Integrating silvopasture practices into perennial fruit production: One farmer's struggle to complete a little demonstration grant

by Harry Hoch

At Hoch Orchard we have been experimenting with animal rotations in our fruit plots for several years. We feel the key to a healthy ecosystem is the interaction between animals feeding on plants and stimulating the biology in the soil; linking the above ground plant growth with the below ground microorganisms. Nowhere in nature is there an ecosystem void of animal life. We strive to create a perennial fruit system that mimics nature and utilizes the link between animals and healthy soil.

 

Our goal is to strengthen the soil, break fruit pest life cycles, and produce high quality meat without taking land away from human food production. In 2016 we were awarded a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program. Our project is more of a ‘Proof of Concept’ as opposed to a research project that tests specific practices. We hope to demonstrate the potential viability of adding animals to perennial fruit production. This concept could be applied to any perennial food production system including fruit and nut production, forestry, or even a mixed annual and perennial vegetable system.

 

Project Objectives

1. Establish infrastructure.

 Work with advisors to create a construction plan

Construct fences

Install a watering system

2. Record establishment and production costs

 Materials and labor to build fences and a watering system

 Record labor needed to operate the grazing system

3. Record meat produced and income generated from hogs

4. Review the data collected on animal rotation. Create a final report on total time spent and cost of grazing hogs in this system. Produce some rough economic data on the cost and income potential of pastured pork.

 

Prior to the Project

Although we had been rotating animals through our fruit plots prior to the grant project, we found many problems with our system which limited the scale of animal production on our farm. Our property is set up with a ten-foot woven wire deer fence enclosing about 60 acres of land. Just inside that deer fence is a high tensile electric fence creating a ring pasture around the perimeter of the farm.

 

We used the ring pasture to move animals around the farm without having to go through the fruit plots. We then used the pasture fence to power ribbon or mesh fence when we put animals in the fruit plots. The drawback of this system is the time required to set up the temporary fences. We also had a lot of trouble with animal escapes and fences failing. The first phase of our grant project was to build permanent fences around the fruit plots. As you can see from the areal photograph many of the fruit plots are bordered by windbreaks. In the first year of the project we nailed multi-species woven wire fence to the windbreaks.

Schedule

We had a great schedule laid out for the grant project. It was not too rigid and it seemed to be easily adhered to. We had a good intern working with the animals the year we applied for the grant and she planned to come back to work on the grant. We also had a good crew of seasonal workers that could help with fencing.

 

Our plan:

Year one - collect data on time required to rotate hogs using temporary fencing. Erect permanent fencing and track time needed for fencing.

 

Year two – finish fences and install gates. Track time needed for rotations using permanent fencing. Host a field day focused on fencing.

 

Year three – install water lines, track rotations, have final field day, and create a report comparing temporary fencing with permanent fencing. Also report on the income per hog and the cost of raising a hog on pasture.

 

Simple and easy peazy, all done by November or December of year three.

 

As is often the case in life, things did not go as planned! Fall of year one went well and our intern worked with the harvest crew after apples were picked and got almost all of the main runs of fence put up. Things went downhill from there. It has been a rough three years. Weather and labor have been quite a challenge. While our animal production intern did a great job her first year, she had some personal issues her second year (year two of the project) making the responsibility of animals difficult. Piece by piece we moved her animal responsibilities to others. Data collection and animal rotations were shifted to another employee who had enjoyed working with animals in the past but was managing our cider sales. Poultry was turned over to a good seasonal worker. Summer of year two was way too chaotic to make any progress on fencing, gates, or watering systems. But we had big plans of finishing the fencing after harvest and getting gates hung. Unfortunately harvest ran late and was followed by an early hard frost making fence work impossible.

 

Year three started where year two left off. In March our cider salesmen decided to move on leaving me with managing cider sales and animal production. It was too late and too busy to find a replacement so we just pushed on without an animal manager. I had a couple of solid year-round employees and a great group of seasonal workers returning. I had some good luck and found a part-time cider sales person so things were looking up. I sold off most of the feeder pigs in the spring and did not order any poultry in order to streamline the animal project. So, we went into the summer with a manageable group of feeders, a small flock of sheep, and no poultry to distract us from the project. I moved the group of pigs a few times during the summer using electric mesh fence as gates and to fill in spots where the fences were not finished. Moving animals only took a few minutes where the new fencing was in place.

 

Summer ended with more issues. In August our part-time farm hand who had helped a lot with fencing and animal chores announced that he was leaving for a full-time warehouse job. He left the first week of September. We were far too short on experienced workers to rotate the pigs through the fruit plots. I set up a small run for the pigs just outside the animal shed and they were able to get outside to graze and root a little but got all their nutrition from waste fruit dumped in the feed trough. Every now and then Buddy the bore (Wooly Hungarian pig) would get bored and find a way out so he could take a walk through the yard. Fortunately Buddy is very calm and will follow me when I call him. He can be a little intimidating at over three hundred pounds with a thick wooly coat and tusks!

 

We had a good crop of apples and lots of cider pumice and grade outs for the pigs so the pigs got all the fruit they could eat. In a typical year we would move the pigs as fruit ripened. The raspberries finish in August so we would flash graze through the patch cleaning up the last over ripe berries and taking out some of the weeds. From there they moved to the cherry trees and then on to the apricots. Apricot trees always drop a lot of fruit during harvest so the pigs have a lot of fruit to glean. Their powerful jaws crack through the pits and all. Sometimes you can hear them crunching away as you walk up to the plot. From the apricots the pigs move to the plum block and from there they move to the summer apples.

 

October hit us with record rainfall and the most challenging harvest of my entire career, making mud, rain-soaked workers, and stuck tractors daily occurrences. When we wrapped up harvest it was far too wet to auger holes and build H braces to hang the gates. When it finally did dry off, we put the entire crew on fencing and built one last run of fence and hung two gates making two completely fenced plots. As soon as we got that one section finished the temps dropped below average and stayed there. The wet ground froze like concrete so no more gate post would go in the ground in 2018. We did get that section of fence and gates up in time for our final field day on November 18th. While it looked bad in October, we were happy that we at least had two complete blocks to show off for the field day.

 

November seemed like a great time to hold a field day on flash grazing and fencing. Farmers should be done with harvest and mild fall weather should make for a nice field walk. Unfortunately the below average fall temperatures continued to our field day. November 18th was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and patchy clouds. The Rochester weather station reported an overnight low of four below zero that morning. It was warmer here, but nobody showed up for a field walk that afternoon.

 

What we learned

The main lesson we learned form this project is it is a lot more difficult to stay on schedule than we thought it would be. Seriously though, we had a good project, but we sure fell short on good luck. For all the part-time farmers out there who are struggling to get everything done, don’t think a grant and demonstration project will be just what you need. It only takes a few bouts of bad luck or bad timing to really throw off a project. Fortunately our project was intended to be a demonstration as opposed to a research project. Even though we did not get all the data collected that we had hoped to, we were able to demonstrate how our concept could work.

 

Cost of Raising pigs on Pasture

We recorded the time spent managing pigs in our rotational system. We had several groups of feeders of different ages and some groups included the mother sow. We have data for two years of pasturing hogs. Supplemental feed and water were taken to the pigs every day and recorded. We also tracked time to: set up and take down portable fencing, chase loose pigs, and move the pigs.

 

In year one we utilized the permanent perimeter fence made of high tensile energized wire. Paddocks were created by setting up portable electric mesh or ribbon wire.

 

In year two, prior to the grazing season, we had long runs of woven wire fence nailed to the windbreaks that divide the fruit plots. We did not get the corners and gates installed but it did make setting up paddocks much easier. We still had to use portable fencing to close off the paddocks and use as gates.

 

Year One

310.75 Hours of Labor to maintain pigs on pasture

46 total moves

31 pigs consisting of 4 sows and 27 feeders

240 days on pasture

10 hours of labor were spent per pig over the season

.041 hours were spent per pig per day

 

Year Two

255.7 Hours of Labor to maintain pigs on pasture

33 total moves

54 pigs consisting of 6 sows and 48 feeders

205 days on pasture

4.73 hours of labor were spent per pig over the season

.023   hours were spent per pig per day

 

Year Three

In 2018 with one small group of pigs we only moved them about five times. No time was spent catching loose pigs. Less than 10 hours was spent putting up temporary fencing to complete the perimeter of partially fenced blocks or to act as gates. Moving animals into paddocks was less than a half hour per move. There is a huge savings of time when utilizing permanent fencing. After all the fences are complete with gates, we should be able to get the average time spent per animal down to under an hour each over the season giving a tenfold reduction in hours.

 

Remember that this is just the cost of pasturing the pigs one season. Cost of feeder pigs or farrowing, over-wintering, and transport to the processor are not included here. Each farm will have different costs for these inputs. These inputs will be fairly easy for individuals to figure out and add to the equation when trying to calculate the cost of raising pigs on pasture.

 

Potential Income from Pastured pigs

On our pasture system we raise old breed hogs for one year with little or no supplemental feed while on pasture. Hogs slaughtered when they weigh between 140 and 160 pounds. In this system we spent an average of 11.5 hours per animal.

 

We sold our hogs either for custom slaughter or had all the meat processed and sold it retail from our farm or at farmer’s markets. The meat was certified organic giving us a premium price.

 

The chart below is the actual amount of cuts recovered from processing three hogs averaging 140 lbs. each.

After processing cost, we generated $534.29 per hog when selling meat retail.

 

Hogs sold to the customer for custom processing were sold for $3.00 per pound live weight.

Customer paid for processing.

Custom processed generated $420 per hog.

 

Fencing Costs for the project

We had a fifty-acre section of fruit plots surrounded with a pasture fence made of high tensile energized wire. We installed 4870 feet of fencing by nailing woven wire to windbreak trees that bordered the fruit plots. We created 12 paddocks averaging four acres each. We did not install gates and have been using portable energized mesh fence to close off the paddocks. The perimeter has about 3000 feet of fencing That was in place prior to the project.

 

We used 5” x 7’ posts on corners and dead ends where gates will be hung.

We used woven wire that was 42 inches high, with 8 horizontal wires and a vertical wire every 12 inches. This is 8-42-12.

 

We already had a perimeter fence in place and we nailed our woven wire to windbreak trees. This makes my cost quite a bit lower than having to buy all the posts, and fence the farm perimeter. We spent $3118.81 on materials and utilized 119.5 hours of labor.

 

True Fencing Cost

The amount that I spent on fencing is of no value to other farmers, other than having an example of how much cheaper fencing can be installed when nailed to a windbreak. Since I spent the time looking up prices I figured I should include some of what I learned when putting my fence together. The prices below reflect the cost of materials when I started the project three years prior to writing this article. From what I have seen the materials cost has not changed very much in that period of time. If you are not planning to install the fence yourself a good rule of thumb to is to double the materials cost. A professional will charge about as much for installation as materials.

 

True Cost

If you are considering installing permanent woven wire fence I have some base costs for you to work from when estimating your own fence expenses. Of course, each site is going to vary considerably. The cost of a straight run of fence is not very high, adding corners and gates increases the price considerably. Here is an example using the materials I used for my fence:

 

Woven wire is $.45 per foot and the posts are $9.00 each. 1000 feet of fence is only $1350 or $1.35 per foot. One corner requires three posts in the ground and two posts for the top of the H-brace. There will also be about $10.00 of hardware. One corner adds $55.00.

 

A gate requires an H-brace on each side of the gate. That is another six posts, hardware, and about $150 for the gate (depending on size) and its hardware. One gate adds $214.

 

A site that is not square and requires many extra corners is going to be more expensive. In fact, sometimes it is cheaper to run a longer fence than putting in three corners to go around an obstacle.

 

There are also many ways for farmer ingenuity to reduce costs. Using an oak tree as a corner, or running up to an existing barbwire or electric fence can always save some money.

 

Wire

We used a moderately priced high tensile woven wire designed for multiple species. I can’t emphasize enough the value of knotted woven wire over old fashioned low tensile welded wire. High tensile wire can be stretched tight like piano wire and will still have some give. A tree falling on the fence or a tractor driver misjudging how wide the wagon was can break posts and knock down long stretches of fence. Woven wire will often lay down but can be pulled back up when the broken posts are replaced. Old style welded wire fencing kinks and breaks and requires much more time to replace and repair.

 

The wire we used has 8 horizontal wires that are spaced closer near the ground and wider higher up. The vertical wires are one foot apart. The height is only 42 inches, but we figured we could add a single wire on top if we want more height. That top wire could be hung with insulators and be energized if you have plans of splitting paddocks with temporary energized wire.

 

One problem I found with the wire we chose is that small feeder pigs under about 50 pounds can hop up to the wider horizontal wire and squeeze through. We have found that pastured pigs that are getting most of their nutrition from the pasture are hungry most of the time. They have to eat a lot of high fiber low calorie food to grow. They will pressure the fence a lot more than a grain fed “pastured” hog. We should have spent a little more money and gone with either a 8-42-6 which has twice as many verticals and costs $.60 a foot or a 13-48-12 which has horizontal wires much closer together and costs $.68 a foot.

 

Posts

Five-inch diameter seven-foot long treated posts are a good strong option for making pasture fence. This size can be pounded in without shattering or can be augered in. This is a very common size that is often on sale at farm stores and lumber yards. Metal T-posts can also make good line posts. Their advantage is they are often cheaper than the wood posts and you can often find used ones at farm auctions for a low price. T-posts can be put in fairly quickly with just a post pounder. There are a few disadvantages to the T-posts.

 

Installing the woven wire can be more tricky when you are stretching it and attaching it to metal posts than wood posts. This style of fence should be anchored at one end then stretched with a clamp system and a tractor on the other end. Sliding the wire past a smooth round post works well, sliding the wire against a T-post can snag and require a few more sets of hands. Attaching the wire to the T-post also requires a special clip or cutting thousands of pieces of malleable wire that can be twisted tight on the post. Attaching the wire to wooden posts just requires pounding a few simple U-nails.

 

Post spacing

Spacing line posts is a decision made with the type of livestock in mind. High tensile woven wire fence can be stretched tight and will not break with cattle or other heavy animals leaning on it or pushing into it. You can space your line posts as far apart as 24 feet for most grazing animals. Hogs are a different story. I put my line posts ten feet apart because if I have more space then that there is some degree of flex in the wire mesh. A mid-size feeder pig or adult hog can get his snout under the wire and then push it up enough to slip under. At ten feet there is not enough slack for pig to get under.

 

Organic farms can run into trouble with treated posts. Each certifying agency can have its own interpretation of what is allowed for a fence holding certified organic livestock. Technically there are no treated posts that are allowed according to the National Organic Program (NOP). A certifying agency may require a twenty-four inch buffer between your treated post and the organic livestock. I have been told that I have to fence off my fence posts so the animals can not contact the treated posts!

 

I have been using metal T-posts for line posts and cedar for the end posts and H-braces. In some cases the certifying agency may allow treated posts for paddocks that are used for flash grazing. This is contrasted with fencing that is used for corrals or feedlots where the animals are near the posts for extended periods of time or in regular contact with the posts. A farm that is transitioning to organic production will most likely have the existing field fences grandfathered in, but you may not be allowed to add fences or replace broken posts with treated wood.

 

Always talk to your certifier before you install fencing with treated posts. If you do install new treated posts and don’t get caught right away, don’t expect to plead ignorance if you get caught years later by a stricter inspector. If you install treated posts after you have started your transition process you are out of compliance and you could end up having to refence or abandon a pasture. Also, if you do work out an agreement with your certifier to use treated posts in paddocks that are only flash grazed, be sure to get your agreement in writing. Some of the larger certification agencies have a lot of staff turnover. Just because one certification specialist told you that your posts are not problem, doesn’t mean those same posts won’t be a problem for a new specialist, certifier, or executive at your certification agency.

 

Materials needed to fence a four-acre paddock would include:

• 840 feet of woven wire

• Four corners consisting of:

o Two H-braces using five posts per corner

• Two gates:

o One gate for equipment, using six posts, 10-foot gate, hardware

o One gate for animals using six posts, 4- foot gate, hardware

 

Cost of materials using 2015 prices

  • 840 feet of woven wire @ $.45 foot  $378
  • 20 posts for corners
  • 12 posts for gates
  • 84 line posts
  • 116 posts @ $9.00                         $1044
  • 4 foot gate @ $50                              $50
  • 10 foot gate                                     $100
  • Gate hardware @ $30 x 2                 $60
  • Miscellaneous hardware                  $100

                                                               $1732

 

Materials needed to fence a fifty acre plot

  • A bout 3000 feet of woven wire
  • Four corners consisting of:
    • Two H-braces using five posts per corner
  • One entrance gate using two ten foot panels

 

Cost of materials using 2015 prices

  • 3000 feet of woven wire @ $.45 foot  $1350
  • 20 posts for corners
  • 12 posts for gates
  • 300 line posts
  • 332 posts @ $9.00                              $2988
  • Two 10 foot gates                                  $200
  • Gate hardware @ $30 x 2                       $60
  • Miscellaneous tools and hardware        $200

                                                                     $4798

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