I’ve spent the last two years puzzling and working away at this question of how to get a tree established in an active pasture, with minimal changes to the way that pasture is managed. For the sake of your livestock, your pastures and your bottom line, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
The trick in getting a tree established in a pasture, as opposed to your front yard, is of course in how to protect that tree from rubbing, browsing or being knocked over. So far, I’ve found two solutions that work simply. To test them statistically, I am working on a SARE grant with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, of which final results will be available a couple years from now. Yet here’s what I can tell from my experience so far, experience gained from planting several thousand pasture trees, as well as 10,000+ trees outside of pastures and then following up for several years afterwards to see how they do.
The starting place is this: A 6’ Plantra tree shelter. The reason those have proven best is that they come with a flexible fiberglass stake that holds up well to rubbing from cattle or sheep. If you were to use a tree shelter with a wooden stake, you’d better be prepared to replace stakes every time livestock rotate through.
A shelter alone is a tempting scratch post though. You need a way to keep animals from rubbing on the shelter. The two options that are working for us are electric fencing and barbed wire.
If planted in a row, the simplest way to protect that row of trees is to run a single strand of electric fencing between the livestock and trees. You can use that row of trees as a paddock division, and even use the fiberglass stakes and ties instead of step-in posts.
Installing barbed wire around every tree is more labor intensive and usually exacts some blood as payment, but offers you the flexibility of protecting trees individually. What I’ve found to work is taking about 8’ of wire and wrapping it up around the shelter. Plantra shelters have the added bonus in this case that the fiberglass stake is attached to the shelter by means of three oversized twist ties. Those twist ties are great for attaching barbed wire to the shelter.
Now that keeping the shelter protected from livestock is taken care of, we still need to make sure the tree survives in its new pastoral home. While livestock can claim the life of a seedling, so can rodents and weeds.
To give the tree a good start, the area planted should first get a good site prep. Conventional guides will tell you to use herbicide, but for those who want an organic option, scalping the sod is a good route as well. Then dig a hole about three times larger than you need, which will further break up roots of vegetation that might otherwise compete, while giving nice friable soil for the tree roots to expand into. Once the tree is in the ground and the shelter in place, I like to add a thick (6+ inches) layer of coarse woodchips as a mulch to keep weeds down, discourage voles from burrowing in, and conserve soil moisture.
Those are the practices we commonly use at this point, and we’re always eager to learn how to do things better. Weeds growing inside the tubes can become a high-maintenance headache. The conventional approach is to drop pre-emergent herbicide granules in, but I would much prefer a natural method. An inch of pelletized sawdust, like those sold for pellet stoves, inside the tube would likely do the trick, at least giving the tree the head start it needs to get established before other plants do. Getting control of weeds early on will pay huge dividends through stronger growth, less need for weeding, and less need for replanting. If you’re wondering when to plant, spring and fall (when the tree is dormant) are much better than summer, since you’ll have less worry about watering if the rain clouds stay away for weeks at a time.
So now you know it’s possible to establish a tree in an active pasture, without much change to your grazing practice. I encourage anyone getting into this to start now, and start small. Start with 10 trees to get the hang of it, and then scale up from there.
You’ll also want to pick the right set of trees. Any tree will obviously cast shade, but some will do that and a whole lot more. To learn about that, I suggest reading “What can trees do for me?”.