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Meet Wild Apple Beef and More

Published: Apr 2023
By: Stephanie Coffman, Marbleseed Presentation Coordinator

Hi fellow farmers! We own and operate a small beef operation on the Rush River watershed in Pierce County, Wisconsin. Practicing good conservation on our farm has always been important to us, especially living just up the hill from the Rush River, a paradise for avid trout fishermen. With the help of my local USDA-NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), we have been able to install infrastructure to rotationally graze our challenging and hilly pastures. Here is a brief video from a couple of years ago highlighting our grazing plan.

Recently we decided to diversify and are adding a new operation on our farm: raising meat birds! After some delays in recent years, we are excited to start this new operation in June and will officially be part of the Tree-Range Farms Cooperative . The “whole eco-system” design of this type of poultry production really appealed to us, along with the established market (this is a HUGE plus) and now dedicated processing plant (USDA Organic Certified) located in Stacyville, Iowa.

Basically, the model is this: The heritage-cross (slow growth) chickens are raised inside the coop, following strict protocols, until they are 4 weeks old. On the fifth week, the chickens are trained to go outside during the day and are then rotated between two different paddocks. The paddocks are approximately ¾ of an acre each and are made up of both perennials and annuals. The perennials are hazelnut and elderberry trees. The reason why these trees are a good fit for this production system is that they can handle the heavy nitrogen load from the chickens. The annuals can consist of various broadleaf plants, including comfrey, and during the early years, corn and sunflowers. These tall annuals end up providing cover for the chickens, and later in the season also become feed. Corn and sunflowers are used in these paddocks until the hazelnut and elderberry trees get big enough to provide that cover – anywhere from 3 – 4 years down the road.

As a new producer for Tree-Range, we were able to benefit from the “pay it forward” hazelnut tree program. Nuts being produced on the farms that have been established for several years are planted in a nursery. New producers are invited to dig up these available seedlings from these nurseries to establish their own paddock system, on the condition that when their own trees start producing nuts, they create a nursery and grow hazelnut seedlings for any new producers that join the cooperative.

The book Trees of Power – Ten Essential Arboreal Allies by Akiva Silver was incredibly helpful for us newbie tree planters. Our soil has a lot of clay in it, so proper drainage for these baby trees was a big concern of ours. On his own farm, Akiva has a similar type of soil. After observing how uneven the forest floor is, with trees growing out of mounds, but having a pit beside it that would collect water and snow – thereby keeping the tree base well drained, but access to plenty of water – he set to work destroying his flat fields to create “mounds and pits” for his tree crops. Eventually he started using berms and swales for planting his rows of trees. This boosted the growth rate of his young trees – many of his chestnut trees now growing as much as 2 – 4 feet in a single growing season.

As seen by the pictures, this is the method we chose to use when planting our trees this past weekend (which coincidentally was on Earth Day.) Here is a brief video demonstrating the tree planting. The mound is the berm – that is what we planted the seedling into, and the furrow is the swale. We had these rows run sideways on the side of the hill – to catch and accumulate rainwater and cut down on erosion. The field that we planted these trees into was an alfalfa/grass hay field that had been undisturbed for several years. We were pleasantly surprised to find mycelium growing in the soil (see picture.) This healthy living soil will help give these little trees a nice start!

This production model will not only provide us with healthfully raised chicken, but also eventually in a few years, hazelnuts and elderberries – products that the Tree-Range Farm team is hard at work sourcing markets for.

We may also be able to work with our local NRCS to help fund the implementation of these climate-smart agriculture practices! There are a variety of programs available through the NRCS to help producers plan and implement conservation practices on their farms. Before you start that next new project on your land, be sure to stop in and have a chat with your local NRCS.

This fall we would be happy to follow up with an update on how our first year went raising chickens –have a happy spring all!