Friday, February 20, 2015

How We Manage Forest Areas With Cattle

     The property where we have our farm is 10 hectares (24 acres), about half of which is forest. We also have access to part of our next door neighbor's property but since most of his open area has grapevines we only use the wooded portion, bringing the total forest area that we have access to about 12 hectares (29 acres.) We use an intensive rotational grazing system so that the cows only spend a few days in each enclosure. They spend about half the year on pasture and half the year in the forest.
The three curious cousins
      We use a movealbe 'electric' fencing system made up of plastic sticks that are about waist height and rolls of conductive string. We place the sticks 8-12m apart and then follow with two strings. We can go over cliffs and across streams, it's a very flexible and easy system although it can be a bit time consuming as it requires multiple trips around perimeter. A permanent fence would be ideal but this system allows us not only to be very flexible in the areas that we include but also allows us to go anywhere. If a new area would be available nearby, from a neighbor perhaps, we could just carry our sticks and string over, set it up and herd the cows in. It's also significantly cheaper! It runs off of a 12v (car) battery which we recharge weekly.
A fence creeping up into the woods
     In many areas there are small creeks or streams that provide water for the cows. These are animals that can tolerate periods with little water very well. When it's rainy, natural puddles can be enough for them. When the days are drier though, and no natural water sources are available we bring a light, fiberglass bathtub to them and then bring cans of water daily. Depending on where the fence is located we can drive the water jugs as close as possible and take them the rest of the way in a wheelbarrow. 120 liters (in this case 6x20 liter jugs) is enough for 5 adults and 3 calves for 24 hours when hay is provided.

     The type of vegetation varies widely from area to area but there are oaks throughout (and the acorns are an absolute cow favorite,) some eucalyptus, Acacia (another Australian introduction, which is edible for them, unlike Eucalyptus.) The underbrush is made up primarily of brambles and a small spiky bush called gorse (which was a new and very unwelcome thing for this Georgia girl.) Wild chestnut trees are also common and in the fall the nuts are a delicacy for the animals! The cattle are able to eat most of the vegetation with the expection of eucalyptus. That said, there are some things that they prefer to others and will only be eaten in moderation or after their favorite things are gone. For this reason we supplement their diet with a bale of hay daily with the exception of the first day that they are in a new area. In the first year that we were on this farm we did not provide this daily hay supplement and found that the animals would get impatient and have a stronger tendency to escape the fence even when it seemed to us that there was quite a bit left that they could eat. To compare it to a person, we are able and might enjoy eating artichokes but if you were put in a room with a few cookies and some spegetti and lots and lots of artichokes you might have a few artichokes each day but when the spaghetti and cookies were gone you wouldn't be very happy to go on eating artichokes all day, every day. By giving them a daily ration of hay they are able to spend more days in a given area and eat more of the vegetation. In the meantime, those extra days mean more walking around and lying down which diminishes the dangerous underbrush that contributes to hundreds of forest fires every year in Portugal.

Blackberry: Before
Blackberry: After. 
     Other interesting benefits of having cattle in mountainous areas is their ability to provide fertilization to the soil, which is especially helpful for young trees that an owner may want to plant as a part of a plan to improve the forest overall. Additionally, as the hay is spread each day it leaves seeds behind that, with the help of cattle clearing the forest floor, help a grassy carpet grow in place of the underbrush.

     It is our ultimate goal to be able to find other land owners in Portugal who have forest areas that would like to host cows. Fire prevention is a primary benefit of having the animals there but we shouldn't forget that they are also a source of food. As the cows go around clearing the area and making it more useful, safer and passable for logging trucks they are also reproducing, making them ultimate multitaskers! Barrosã meat is highly valued for it's unique flavor and texture. It's possible that breeds other than Barrosã could be used in this system but in my opinion they are particularly suitable. It is believed that Barrosã are one of the closest living relatives to the wild ancestor of the cow, the Auroch, making them heartier and more resistant to difficult conditions. For more than 10 years, every one of our females has given birth, outside, with no human interventionism. They are also goat-like in their ability to handle difficult terrain and can tolerate winter as easily as summer without needing any man-made shelter.
Happy family in the woods...