Better farm productivity, as well as improving the environment, was behind Shropshire farmer Tim Downes’ decision to plant trees on his organic dairy farm.
Milking 300 organic Friesian cows on his farm in Longnor, trees were initially introduced to aid shelter, soil conditions and water management.
With several waterways running through the land, pollution, loss of nutrients due to run-off, water infiltration and stock control were all concerns, so poplars and willows were planted alongside water courses.
See also: 9 reasons to plant trees on your farm
The trees helped stabilise the banks of the farm’s stream, brooks and rivers, reducing bankside erosion, nutrient loss and risk of flooding – something Mr Downes says is becoming increasingly important.
Top tree-planting tips
Thinking of planting trees on your farm? Here are Tim Downes’s tips:
Do your research You don’t want to plant anything that could be poisonous to your livestock, so stick with native species and get advice about what you should be planting. A little bit of research goes a long way.
Look for funding Trees are cheap to plant, but there are costs in labour and providing fencing around the saplings and in the important early maintenance to help the trees establish. We received help from the Woodland Trust and there is funding available through other schemes.
Ask for advice The Woodland Trust has been a tremendous help in terms of helping us understand what trees to plant, where to plant them and how to manage them.
“We have had 154mm of rain so far this year and we’re noticing that it’s coming in greater gluts,” says Mr Downes.
“If we can use trees to control flooding, store more water on the farm for when we need whilst also raising organic matter then that’s great.”
Along with hedgerows, the cherry and oak trees planted about 20 years ago in awkward corners of the farm provide shelter which has helped increase soil temperatures in early spring and late autumn.
This extends the grass growing season, and mitigates strong winds and the effects of hot summers on the pasture, helping improve grass quality.
“Shelter from the trees means that water is retained on the grazed land, so cows have access to more nutritious grazing because there is higher growth in the field,” Mr Downes says.
Perhaps less obviously, the trees also bring additional benefits in terms of providing nutritional and medicinal fodder for his cattle.
Planting trees for the future
In 2014, as part of a joint venture between Harper Adams and the Woodland Trust, Mr Downes planted 72 mainly native trees – including hornbeam, small leaved lime, sycamore and disease-resistant elm – in three rows across a 2.5ha field
A year later, as part of a medicinal trial, he planted 35 crack willows and 35 white willows in a 1.46ha (3.6 acre) strip which milking cattle will pass while they are out at grass between February and November.
Once established, it is hoped that foliage from the trees will offer an alternative source of dietary protein and improve nitrogen use by shifting the digestion of proteins from the rumen to the small intestine.
Meanwhile willow trees store high quantities of trace elements such as zinc and copper in their foliage, which are important for productivity in dairy cattle, while salicylic acid in willow trees has anti-inflammatory properties which can help with sore feet and mastitis.
“Very few people are planting trees, and with market prices the way they are at the moment then spending money on trees might not seem like a priority for many farmers,” Mr Downes adds.
“But planting trees is helping us increase the way we utilise the farm, create shelter and improve the welfare of our animals. If they are bringing benefits which help us be more productive that can only be a good thing.”
Want to plant trees on your farm?
The Woodland Trust offers free advice and support to farmers who are interested in planting trees on their land.
Its team of woodland creation advisors carries out tree planting assessments, design planting schemes and identifies where you can apply for funding and support to plant trees and purchase guards.
The trust then works with farmers and landowners to monitor the results over subsequent years.
UK Rural Development Programmes offer support for woodland creation. In England, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme has grants available until the end of April.