Using livestock to graze orchards, also known as silvopasture, is becoming a popular method with many homesteaders. Your orchards and pastures can be mowed, fertilized, and have reduced pests just by grazing your livestock strategically. It sounds pretty good, right? The only problem is, most livestock will eat the leaves, fruit, and bark from your fruit trees. So, which animals cause the least amount of damage, and which are the best for grazing orchards?
The best animals to graze in an orchard are sheep, geese, and ducks. However, compared to sheep, geese and ducks can cause far less damage to the fruit trees. Alpacas and goats can also successfully graze an orchard, but they require more supervision. Generally, cows and pigs are too destructive for orchards.
While most livestock will graze in orchards, they don’t come without their pros and cons. Let’s take a look to see which ones really are the best to be grazing your orchard.
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When it comes to grazing around your fruit trees, sheep can be some of the best livestock and some of the worst. They’re generally very efficient grazers, but they can also be destructive.
Just a few sheep will be able to quickly clear a large area in your orchard. If you consistently rotate their pasture, they can provide the majority of your mowing needs.
However, without the proper safeguards, your fruit trees can quickly fall prey to sheep as quickly as the grass and weeds. Sheep will eat the leaves, fruit, and bark off of the fruit trees and will often rub their heads on the branches, which will break them.
If you do incorporate sheep into your orchard, let the fruit tree foliage grow to a height of at least 6 feet off the ground before allowing sheep near them. However, this would only be possible for some larger fruit trees, such as very mature apple or pear trees. If you have dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, you may need to rely more on fencing.
While sheep aren’t as destructive as goats, they’ll likely need more fencing and supervision compared to the other animals on this list.
Geese are one of the best animals to graze your orchard. The most common breed of weeder geese is White Chinese. Weeder geese are known for their ability to quickly clear large areas of land as 2-4 geese are enough to mow 1 acre. By mowing, they’ll also naturally reduce pests and parasites from hiding in taller grasses.
Some of the pests that you’ll see reduced are insects, snails, and slugs, which can be detrimental to fruit trees.
Unlike sheep and goats, geese don’t require fencing and can forage in your orchard as they wish. Given their height is less than sheep and goats, you don’t need to worry about them stripping your fruit trees’ leaves (for younger fruit trees and saplings, you might want to separate them until they reach a good height above the geese).
The only time when you would want fencing and increased supervision for your geese is if they tend to wander off, get into other areas of your garden, or have predators in the area.
Similar to geese, ducks will work down pests in your orchard, although not nearly as many weeds. They don’t require much maintenance other than minor supervision and predator control.
I first saw an example of using ducks in orchards a year or so ago when I watched the Biggest Little Farm. John and Molly had an issue with snails taking over their fruit trees, and there were A LOT of them (some fruit trees were covered). After a bit of trial and error, they decided to let their ducks graze the orchards.
What happened next was that the ducks ate the majority of the snail population and saved the fruit trees. This is an amazing example of permaculture (and silvoculture).
However, ducks won’t eat as many weeds or grass as geese will. So, ducks can be thought of as more of a pest-control rather than livestock that mows. On the other hand, if your ducks and geese get along, consider running both in the orchard.
Alpacas are one of my favorite livestock, and they’re decent grazers. They’ll help work down the weeds and grass in your orchard and their manure will provide great fertilizer for the soil.
The downside to using alpacas in orchards is that they can reach a bit higher than some other livestock. Alpacas can generally reach up to 3 feet in height, so if fruit trees are within range they’ll likely graze on them.
For this reason, it’s best to keep fruit trees pruned to a height of 6 feet or higher if possible.
Overall, alpacas are very light eaters compared to most livestock, so while they’ll eat some grass, they’re not the best mowers on this list. However, they can make for good grazers in small doses.
For more information about what to feed alpacas, check out my other post: the complete guide to feeding llamas and alpacas.
Goats are by far one of the most destructive animals you can let loose on an orchard. Unlike sheep, who can only reach a certain height by standing on their hind legs, goats won’t hesitate to climb trees to eat more foliage.
So, you may be thinking, “Who would ever let goats out on their orchard?”, and that’s a good question. The answer is because goats are the best mowers out there.
Like sheep, goats will eat the leaves, fruit, and bark from fruit trees to the point where many, if not most fruit trees will die if the goats are left unsupervised. They’ll also rub their heads and horns on the trunks and branches, damaging them.
However, goat’s mowing ability is unparalleled.
On average, 10 goats can clear 1 acre every month. They’re just that good.
Goats are known for eating anything and everything, and this has some truth to it. They’ll eat grass, weeds, bushes, trees, vines, and almost every other type of vegetation out there.
The biggest downside to having goats is their natural destructive ability. But, if properly managed with good fencing and supervision, they can make great mowers for your orchard.
How Do You Stop Livestock From Eating The Fruit Trees?
You might find that even with proper fencing and supervision, your fruit trees could be eaten. So, how can you stop livestock from eating the fruit trees in your orchard?
The best way to stop your grazing livestock from eating your fruit trees is to avoid using goats and sheep and stick to weeder geese. Geese’s lack of height and temperament will keep them focused on the ground and not looking upward for food.
Also, make sure geese get the proper nutrients, so they don’t turn to use the plants in your orchard or garden as supplements.
While geese aren’t as great of mowers as goats or sheep, they do require less supervision and management. The biggest factors to consider with weeder geese are pasture rotation and predator control.
However, if you‘d like to try goats or sheep on your orchard, and would like to limit the damage they cause, there are some methods to help manage them. You can prune the fruit trees’ foliage to 6 feet, fence off rotating sections of pasture, and keep a constant eye on livestock. Yes, it requires more work, but it won’t take goats or sheep long to completely strip fruit trees, especially young plants with new growth.
Whichever livestock you choose, make sure they get a good amount of food and nutrition from grazing. If they’re lacking certain nutrients and minerals, they’ll look at the fruit tree as a supplement. This is why sheep often chew the bark off of fruit trees’ trunks and sometimes require mineral blocks to supplement their diet.
While some livestock like cows and pigs are too destructive to keep in an orchard, sheep, geese, ducks, alpacas, and goats can make for great options. While they each have their pros and cons, they can help mow the grass in the orchard, reduce pests, and fertilize the soil.
Before you let livestock graze in your orchard, make sure your fruit trees are properly fenced off and the orchard isn’t easily accessible by predators.
Lastly, you may want to inspect the orchard or pasture to see if there’s any vegetation that can be poisonous to livestock (like black cherry trees).
Stick to these tips and livestock, and you’ll have a better time managing your orchards and livestock as you strive for silvopasture.