It makes sense to run a range of animal species in conjunction with fruit and vegetable crops – the trick is to work out a system that works . We have chooks, geese, muscovy ducks, maremma dogs, bees, pigs and Jersey cows. We plan to run a small flock of sheep in the future. We know we can grow better fruit and vegetables if we have animals in the production system - so we think it makes sense to be omnivorous. Meat and animal products produced from truly free range animals in an organic production system is a totally different proposition from animal products from industrialized farming.
Chooks are wonderful things in an orchard, because they turn insect pests such as grasshoppers, weevils and earwigs into organic fertilizer. They also help with weed control, and of course provide the highest quality eggs when they have access to green pasture and insects year round in an irrigated orchard such as ours. We have chooks primarily for insect control, and consider the eggs a “by-product”. Our chook eggs are proving very popular at the Mount Gambier Farmers Market. We are currently running around 150 chooks, using a mobile chook house that is moved one house-length between the tree rows daily, which spreads the manure down the row. Foxes are potentially an issue, which is why we have four Maremmas. We are in the process of fencing the orchard into a series of small (half hectare) paddocks, to keep foraging chooks and dogs closer together. We believe our 4 hectare orchard could support around 400 chooks, while still maintaining premium quality eggs without the need to purchase in much organic grain for feed.
Geese do a great job controlling grass in an orchard – the problem is they also love fruit, and will eat it from blossom stage right through to maturity. Furthermore the grazing height of a goose is almost as high as that of a sheep – around 120 cm. Because our apples are on semi-dwarfing rootstock, with fruit from ground level to 250cm, we cannot put geese in the apples from flowering (October) through to harvest (March – May). We have trained the peach trees to a vase shape (which is really just a modified pergola), and geese in combination with straw mulch under vase shaped trees works really well. (Geese have big flat feet and don’t scratch up mulch – chooks and mulch together just doesn’t work).
We are currently experimenting with Muscovy ducks as an alternative to geese for weed control - a major benefit being that Muscovy ducks are terrific grazers, but as they are much smaller they are not able to reach as high into the tree, so less fruit is lost. In addition they breed faster than geese, and there is a market for duck eggs and meat birds.
Bees perform the important task of pollinating many fruit and vegetable species, and of course provide honey. We have one hive in the peach block, with plans to have a few more in coming years. We have never had a problem with pollination in the apples, as there are many wild bee hives in the red gums a kilometre or two away. However we have had a pollination issue with the stone fruit, that flower about six week before the apples when the weather is generally much colder and windier. It seems the wild bees just don’t like flying the kilometre or two in late August or early September. In October there are simply lots of insects about. Our apples are also pollinated by dozens of species of insects – small native bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths (on warm evenings).