Silvopasture for Chickens & Sheep

Over the past year, we have planted one field using silvopasture principles. Silvopasture is where you grow trees and shrubs with animals integrated into the system that benefit each other. The idea is to reduce carbon based inputs into the system such as tractors to cut grass and fertiliser for trees whilst getting extra forrage for the animals.

This is 1252m² (1/3 of an acre) field with a mix of trees, shrubs and vines. Trees are planted along swales on very poor soil with spaces between for future alley cropping. Please read this blog post for the design and planning steps.

The site of the field and how it affects design and preparation

Restoration agriculture for sheep and chickens
The field with the swales already dug, fencing finished and bales ready for mulch

Previous to us taking over the land, this field was regularly ploughed and overgrazed. The soil is poor, rocky, compacted, very dry in the summer and waterlogged in the winter. We have started to fix the soil with cover crops, compost, chop and drop and biochar. We have fixed the water logging with 4 swales with an overflow pond.

The field is alongside one of our tracks that lead to the straw bale community house so we have added flowers from shrubs and trees on the border and fence to beautify the entrance track.

Another border of the field will be the chicken composting run by the permanent chicken house which was designed for chickens as our main workers for keeping the weeds down and fertilising the trees. It has been planted with lots of trees and shrubs that chickens can also fodder.

Another border of the field is a pasture field for sheep, so we have planted trees that will withstand sheep browse once they have established.

The other side borders with a reforestation field which has been heavily planted with windbreak trees, eventually these will protect the field from the wind.

There is a north-west wind that comes through this field toward the community house. The field should have a secondary fast-growing windbreak to further break the wind.


Swale in action
One of the swales full of water, doing its job.

First, we created three swales in the field to help catch, spread and slow down rain and runoff water.

We fenced off the area to protect the field from our sheep where we used to graze the land as they will quickly destroy any newly planted trees. We fenced the area off with straight fence lines so that the fence can be pulled tight with a tractor. Fence posts that follow contour are likely to lean over when pulling a fence tight.

We installed irrigation pipes to the field so we had access to water for composting and planting

We mucked out the sheep stables and turned the manure into many piles of compost using a hot composting method with a diverse ingredient list with suitable compost for the trees that we planted.

Drawing at Maturity
Design based at full maturity of trees. Read below for more information on why it was designed this way.

North/west wind break and hedge

This is a secondary windbreak as we have already planted an evergreen windbreak upwind of this field in our reforestation field. The wind is a big problem for us here so this windbreak will both protect the field as well as the community straw bale house which is south of this field.

We planted a line of trees about one metre apart along the north swale at the bottom of the slope. This includes nitrogen-fixing trees, timber trees and small fruiting shrubs/trees. These trees will be thinned out over time giving us timber, bio char and mulch (all fixing carbon) and making room for the remaining trees. I like to design windbreaks as they will exist in the future and then heavily plant trees in between them so we can make use of the space and the irrigation lines. The trees planted in these spaces will also provide timber and firewood and are nitrogen-fixing trees that we can chop and drop to build the soil in the system. The extra planting can also give us more options if some of the main trees do not survive. The 30 trees planted in this swale include nitrogen-fixing Neem and Honey Locus. These will be regularly pollarded in the future to help fertilise the field and give fodder to the sheep. Quince, coppicable Hazel, Persimmon and Basket Willow will be our understory hedge and will also giving fodder to sheep. Ash, Mulberry and Fig also give good fodder for the sheep or chickens. The trees were selected as they are fast-growing and can provide windbreak, food and timber for us and fodder to either chickens or sheep.

We also planted windbreak trees such as Alpine Ceder, Mediterrane Cypress, Honey Locus and Sweetgum on the north-west side of the field for a further windbreak.

Middle swale apple trees

Unlike the apple plantation down the road that has apple trees 1 metre apart, we have ours planted 12 metres apart to let them grow big. We have three types of apples here that we grafted on the food forest course here in 2018. The apple trees need to grow taller than in a plantation as we will rotate sheep into this field and they will destroy small trees.

In between the apple trees we have planted many shrubs for berries and as nurse crops to give us another yield and animal fodder from this swale and irrigation line. This includes Plums, Pomegranates, Siberian Pea Shrub, Elderberry, Willow and Chokeberry. Depending on their water needs the have been either planted above or in the swale.

We also planted a line of Grapevines all along the south side of this swale. We haven’t put a terrace so these will act as a ground cover and we will try and train these to be self-supporting and one day grow up the trees. We will always plant grapevines in any field as they grow easily here in Portugal, have a long yielding lifespan and give a great crop for humans or animals. (This year we made 150 litres of wine with help from friends)

Between the swales an Olive Tree row

Olive trees grow so well in Portugal and they produce olive oil which is probably the most sustainable oil you can get. As they can yield for thousands of years an Olive tree will offset more carbon than any other fruit tree in its yielding lifetime and is completely drought tolerant. Thus we will always include these in our new plantations. We use olive oil for cooking, making sauces, soaps and cosmetics and I am sure when we have too much it is easily swapped for things we need within the local community.

Usually, the variety Galega is planted in this region for Olive Oil but to hedge for climate change and to add diversity we have planted 5 other varieties of Olive trees here with a 6-metre gap. They have not been planted in or near swales as they do not need the water and need to have a flatter ground around them. This is to make it easier for harvest as you take the olives off the trees onto nets on the floor.

Almond south swale

Over the first two years on the farm, we planted a huge diversity of trees in our food forests. Almond trees have grown the best so we decided to plant more almonds for this field. We planted 4 almonds (3 varieties) along the swale with good spacing between them. We have also included nitrogen-fixing shrubs Myrtle and Sea Buckthorn between these. This winter I plan to plant another line of grapevines along the row of almonds.

South fence line

This fence is along the entrance road and so to make it look good we planted a bunch of perennial flowering shrubs such as Bottle Brush, Geranium, Laurestine, Oleander (this is poisonous to humans and animals so we will train it to grow tall and out of reach to sheep) and Escallonia. We also planted climbing flowers such as Passion fruit, edible Honeysuckle and Bougainvillea for the fence. These are particularly good for providing pollen for our bee swarm from our beehives which in turn help pollinate the fruit trees.

Alley cropping

There are three alleys between the swales and I plan to use these to grow various winter grains and winter vegetables from the winter of 2020. We first are working on building the soil by chopping and dropping cover crops.  We will grow winter grains such as perennial rye, oats and rye for seeds for sprouting to feed to the chickens and sheep. Although the animals do not need additional feed we plan to use these grains and sprouts for animal training, i.e. an animal will always know the person that feeds them. This helps when wanting to round animals up. We will rotate the grains each year with winter vegetables such as brassicas, onions, garlic and leeks.

Building soil

A lot of compost has been used around the trees and shrubs we have planted. We also have filled the swales and heavily mulched the trees with biomass from around the farm such as hay, broom, dead brambles and canes. We have seeded cover crops such as clover, rye and alfalfa and seed bombed a bunch of leftover vegetable seeds for fun. These are all regularly strimmed to add to the mulch layer. Also on every swale are many nitrogen-fixing trees which will be mulched in the future. The only risk with the heavy mulch around is in case of fire. We mitigate this by mostly having fire-resistant trees and ploughing or heavily overgrazing (by sleeping sheep in pens for a few day so the eat and squash all the grass) around the field and on the other side of the fence.

Integrating sheep and chickens

We will use electric fencing this year to put chickens through the system. This will ensure that new trees are protected. From next year we will let the chickens free range at certain times of the year in this field.

Sheep will not be able to go into this field for a few years however I hope to experiment letting them into the alleys with electric fencing once we have an electric fence that works for the sheep.

Next field to plant

Each year we will plant another field using different principles from restoration agriculture, food forests, forest gardens, carbon farming and silvopasture. I hope to have many fields with different examples that can provide humans with food, medicine, timber, firewood, alcohol while offsetting carbon, creating wildlife habitat and sustainably feed animals which keep the land clean of weeds, safe from fire and provide food for humans. All these fields will be part of a larger sustainable system that produces food and offset carbon.

The next area we are planting is a walnut food forest in the reforestation field. Then this autumn we will plant another field with a mix of fruit trees. Instead of having a small field fenced off and heavily planted with trees, we will experiment with fewer trees planted but individually fenced to protect from sheep. this will mean less human work needed to cut grass and less area where the sheep can not go.

Thank you

A big thank you to those of you that donated the trees for this field. Almond trees (Elke), west windbreak (Joel), Olive trees (Lucy Sharpe) and to all of you that planted trees in the rain (Egle, Thierry and Joao). Thank you to those who volunteered and helped with the fencing or digging of swales, and to those who attended the food forest course that completed the planting. Thank you to our neighbours (Bruno and Adriano) with tractors that helped dig the swales.

Thank you for reading, we would love any feedback or for you to read about our other fields that we have planted in the past few years (most posts need updating but I will do that soon).

Click here to read more about our other food forest projects

To support this carbon offsetting project you may join us as a volunteer or on a food forest course. Or donate to our reforestation program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *