About the Eichhof
The Riecken family farms the Eichhof since 1899. Today it is run by the 4th generation moving towards the 5th. The farm is specialised in ecological milk production with a herd of 70 cows of Holstein Friesian, which is a typical milk breed worldwide. The grazing is structured by 16 parcels based on an Irish continuous grazing system. This approach is supposed to be more efficient than the usual system. The Riecken family is farming on 70 hectares (1 ha = 100 m x 100 m) plus 20 hectares lease. Besides the cowfarm the Eichhof consists of a small dairy processing unit and a farm shop. Furthermore, many events take place in the farm, for instance education programs for kids and adults. The direct selling of diverse milk products enables the Riecken family to work together with almost 30 employees. Furthermore, it guarantees a financial stability. This financial foundation paves the way for experimenting with new farming methods, such as silvopastoral farming.
The beginning of silvopastoral farming in the Eichhof
During 2018, which was an extraordinary dry year, family Riecken noticed clearly the signs of heat stress among their cows. It became so critical that some cows got a heat-shock and one cow even died. In addition, fodder reserves for the winter had to be released in August. This traumatic year strengthened the decision to implement agroforestry. The main reasons are carbon drawdown, creating a temperate microclimate and opening up new food sources. Together with professional consulting, support of two foundations and around 100 volunteers, family Riecken planted approximately 1.400 trees in autumn 2020.
“I see agroforestry as a way to create complex ecosystems. Due to its complexity it is difficult to analyse economically. In the past, business economics simplified agricultural systems to calculate them. Complexity and diversity, that is how nature works.” - Felix Riecken
How does the silvopastoral farming in the Eichhof look like?
- Fodder hedges have been planted on the Eichhof to create new food sources. They consist of a diverse mixture of trees, such as hazel (Corylus avellane), elder (Sambucus), bird cherry (Prunus avium), alder (Alnus), mulberry (Morus), black nut (Juglans nigra), sorb tree (Sorbus domestica), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), maple (Acer), and tree hasel (Corylus colurna). The costs per tree were between 2 and 3 euros. A fence system and tree protection were needed as well. The fodder hedges are located next to the field paths, because there is a high concentration of nutrients. Family Riecken expects the trees to prevent nutrient leaching and anticipates therefore a more efficient nutrient use. Moreover, the tree leaves are a source of minerals. Mulberry leaves supply the cows with proteins. In addition, the trees will offer protection against intense heat days and heavy rainfall. The fodder hedges will be grazed by the cows. Higher parts, that cows cannot reach, will be harvested with a telescopic handler. Other positive aspects to the fodder hedges are windbreak and link of landscape features. As long as the tree size allows it, annual plants will be grown in between, such as celery, garlic and squash.
- An orchard has been established with upper stem fruit trees. Mainly apple (Malus) trees were used. The costs for upper stem trees are approximately 25 euros per tree. Because the trees are very valuable, more money and effort were invested in tree protection. The distances are 17 meters between the tree rows and 12 meters within the rows. The distance between the rows is based on the working width of a slurry tanker. Orchards were a common part of the German countryside to supply the nourishment with fruits. But in the last 70 years orchards disappeared with increasing tractor use. The apples will be used for juice production. Moreover, the orchard connects landscape features, offers flowers for bees and embellishes the landscape. Family Riecken wants to use the orchard as a social meeting point also.
- A chestnut plantation is Eichhofs third silvopastoral system. The chestnuts will be used as nourishment for humans. The trees need a relatively warm climate, that is why they were positioned on south slopes. The distance between the rows is also based on the slurry tank. This chestnut plantation is a pilot project in northern Germany, because they are not common there yet and are vulnerable to late frosts.
Biggest hurdles and tips for beginners
Due to the pandemic the plantation could not take place as family Riecken wished. They had to organize the 100 interested volunteers into small groups. The plantation process was made difficult by the dry and rigid soil. This made digging holes quite exhausting. Due to the warm temperatures the trees did not shed their leaves and therefore the deliveries have been delayed. Reactions to the new systems of the Eichhof by other farmers are diverse. Some are reserved and others join family Rieckens tree orders. Such positive reactions motivate the family. Advices for other farmers are:
- Intrinsic motivation is essential
- Agroforestry is not done with the plantation, it also requires maintenance
- Find a good consultant
- Integrating other people can be a good motivation source
- There is a good range of further education programs
- There are many ways to make agroforestry profitable.