Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Another new use!

We have discovered another new way in which the Icelandics are a significant economic help in the tree crops.  I hadn't ever seen this particular practice mentioned in descriptions of "silvopasture" operations; the idea simply occurred to me as I was doing this necessary work right next to the sheep, and it hit me that they could be a huge help.  Maybe.  So I set out to test it immediately; and the answer is yes!  The sheep are a huge help, in yet another way.

When you work with any woody crop, eventually you hit the point where you simply have too many branches in the field; and in our case, too many trees, too.  You absolutely must remove them, via pruning and/or coppicing.  The concept that there is a "right time" to prune or coppice - becomes laughable, once you are working at a larger scale.  Pruning "on time" is a luxury; old apple growers used to respond to the question "When is the right time to prune?" with a blunt grunt of "When your saw is sharp."  Which is to say, whenever it is possible, in the rush of all the other work necessary.  Do it any time in the year you can - that is vastly better than fantasizing that you will get it done sometime in the future, when conditions are perfect.  That way lies ruin.

Inevitably, much of our pruning/thinning happens when the branches are completely leafed out.  And those leaves - are a major barrier to finishing the job; getting big branches or thinned trees cut into moveable pieces, and removed from the grove.  Typically we have cut, waited for the active leaves to draw as much water (and weight) out of the cut wood as possible, and the leaves have dried down crisp; then done the chore of removal.  No matter what; the leaves slow you down dramatically, and take up space in the transport process.  More work.  But you know what?  The sheep eat chestnut leaves, and hickory-pecan leaves - voraciously.  We have already been relying on them (and the horses) to remove everything they can reach - up out of our way, and letting us humans actually get under the trees, for harvest.

So - what happens if you go into the next designated sheep paddock, and do the pruning thinning right before putting the sheep in?
Chestnut tree thinnings, dropped in next paddock. 
Above: an entire small chestnut tree dropped for the sheep to work on.  Imagine yourself having to wrestle the leaves and twigs out of the grove.  It's a very significant amount of sweat involved.

After the Icelandics.
This is the same culled tree- skeletonized; you can tell by looking at the big chestnut tree in the right margin; same trunks.  Notice there's a lot of green grass still available; the sheep eat chestnut leaves before grass.  And notice the black and white ewe in the upper left; she's prospecting for any chestnut twigs/leaves still reachable.  They eat not only the leaves, but also most of the young twigs, which like the leaves are just a pain in the neck for the human partner to deal with.  They don't eat the immature burrs, interestingly, but those are easy to deal with.

Something I was not able to get a photo of; our sheep work on the dropped tree as a gang, not individuals.  I saw them do it.  When one of the larger ewes manages to bend a yet unbrowsed branch just a bit lower- 5 more sheep immediately ran to work on the tops now in reach.  They are eager.

Now- multiply this help by the hundreds of branches and thinnings we need to remove every year.

I think this is a big deal.  Dramatically lowers the cost of this part of managing the trees- as well as providing good feed to the sheep.  And rather than the dry leaves blowing away somewhere, the nutrients in them go through the sheep - and are then harvested by us humans, either via the sheep, or as harvested nuts or wood.

Win-win-win, once again.