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Potential of homestead on a 20% slope? Kitchen garden? Cattle?

 
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Hi,

I’m currently looking to buy a 10-14 acre slice of land to run as a lifestyle smallholding applying permaculture principles. The complexity of the landscape, degree of the slope and my long-term grand idea are far beyond my level of experience at the moment so I was hoping some people with experience of similar sites might be generous enough to give advice on some of the questions I have - or point me to resources for further study.

Over the past few years I’ve been reading/watching/learning a fair bit about small-holdings and permaculture but my only practical experience to date has come from looking after my own small veg patch and planting a young small forest garden - i.e. no experience on a larger / complex site or with animals. There are a few threads on permies about slopes but none answer my specific questions and I’m hesitant to leap to conclusions as I’ll likely delude myself. I think a lovely quote from one of the threads was “The land may not be right for producing crops for consumption. Even though you may want to produce an entire array of fresh produce […] the purpose of the land may not match your hopes. It decides what it can do, not the human”. Given my lack of experience with steep land I’m unable to understand what the land is telling me about what it can / cannot do.

The land on the map below consists of  approximately 13.5 acres (5.5ha, 54000sqm) in North West England. The map is orientated such that the top is pointing North. I’ve annotated the contour lines but include information in the text below the map about the gradient. The contour lines are to the nearest 5m and therefore the land actually has additional undulations where the ground is a little more / less steep over a few metres.

The land is currently put to grass and has been used as pasture and silage in the past. The hedges between the fields are traditional [British] mixed hedgerows (hazels, elder, haws, etc) that have grown to full height trees in places.

https://imgur.com/a/wDaHQFq

The gradients along the drawn lines are:
A. 20% / 11 Degrees
B. 17% / 9.5 Degrees
C. 20.5% / 11.5 Degrees
D. 20% / 11 Degrees

[Photos of the gradient, it looks steeper in real life] https://imgur.com/a/oRmzSvo
[Satellite photos] https://imgur.com/a/i5G4hDN

If any more information would be useful please let me know and I’ll happily try to supply it.

I should note that this land is to be developed over many years, I intend to watch it for the first year or two while (hopefully) renting it out to a local farmer with neighbouring fields to keep the grass/weeds down (by sheep or tractor). While the questions below may suggest I’m about to take on too much at once, the reason I ask them is to understand the potential of the land and its limitations so as to know if it will be appropriate the long term, I'll then allow the potential of the site to set the direction of my learning.

Now for the questions:

1. As an initial high level question… am I mad to be considering buying this plot for mixed agricultural / forestry / pastoral use? What if considering as a lifestyle permaculture farm where profitability is less important?

2. Do you think it’d be feasible to have a kitchen garden/small market garden on this ~20% (11deg / 1:5) gradient? Would it be necessary to terrace / flatten it in some way if I wanted to grow annuals? I’m imagine I’d put no-dig beds on contour as I expect that’d be easier to work.


3. Do you think it’d be possible to keep small numbers of cows on this slope in a self-sufficient way? I should note that while the slope varies there are no completely flat areas, would this be an issue for the welfare of the livestock? I envisage ideally having 2 cows at a time + potential calves (I don’t like the idea of keeping singles of herding animals). Ideally I’d want to have minimum infrastructure - given our winters are mild I’d hope to be able to keep them outside for as much of the year as possible. I suspect this would probably pushing the land a bit far in terms of its ability to handle the animals when wet and in terms of the amount of pasture/forage it could produce.


4. I appreciate that there are huge numbers of variables to take in to account here but I’ll pose the question anyway in the hope that someone may be able to offer some insight if not a direct answer… If the answer to the previous question was yes, approximately how many acres would you expect I’d need to give over to 2 cows with calves if they are to be primarily pasture fed (grasses/legumes/etc)
 given it's a north east facing slope?

5. Other animals that I’d  potentially look to keep in small numbers are listed below, do you think any of them would have issues with living on this gradient? I understand there can be issues with fencing on steep gradients for some of these animals - if you can think of any other potential issues that may impact keeping please could you advise?
   * Chickens
   * Pigs
   * Other poultry (ducks, turkeys, etc)
   * Goats
   * Sheep
   * Alpacca / Llama


6. I like the idea of putting/keeping at least 30% of the site I eventually purchase back to nature with mixed broadleaf woodland and wildflower meadows or whatever suits it really. I don’t imagine there would be any issues doing this on a slope like this but I’m happy to take advice if anyone would suggest otherwise.


7. I can envisage, in time, trying to put some form of water storage, such as a pond, in higher up on my part of the slope. Do you think that would be feasible given how steep the land is? I should note I have no specific plans in mind at this point but given the droughts facing Britain in future I think early planning for some form of water storage would be sensible.


8. I’ve not yet done any soil assessments etc and wouldn’t really know what to look for on a site like this. In the past all I’ve done are PH tests and thumb tests for soil type. Would you recommend anything else? Is it worth performing full agricultural soil tests? I expect I should be able to plant to the existing soil types and build soil and solve any deficiencies as and when I need to - is that a bit naive for such a large scale?

If you’ve taken the time to read this far you have my dearest thanks and if you have any insights / experience / links / etc to share in regards to one or more questions then I’d be eternally grateful if you take a few minutes more to post a reply.

P.S. I'll post some info about the climate shortly
 
Paul Crellin
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Climate information as promised.

The climate in this area is mild all year round. I include rain and daylight hours graphs below. The rain typically falls fairly evenly within the months however with climate change we have been experiencing more droughts followed by heavy rainfall events and the expectation is that these will increase in future. Mild winds are from the South and West for most of the year with the occasional cold wind from the East during winter. Given the slope you can see in the terrain we are facing north east and therefore could be somewhat sheltered from the westerly winds but would be exposed to occasional cool easterly winds.

The Growing season is approx 280 days - higher than the UK average due to being near the coast.

Average yearly rainfall is: 850mm distributed fairly evenly across all months of the year and across many days of the month - however we expect more extreme drought/heavy-rain cycles in future.

Temperature can be anywhere between -5C (23F) and 35C (95F) but would typically be between 0C (32F) and 27C (80F). The daily max/min averaged over the month in the graphs below however shows that it is typically 5-15C (41-59F). There are 17 hours of daylight at its peak in summer whereas the shortest winter day has 7.5 hours of daylight. Sunlight hours vary between 100 and 250 per month.

[Graphs of 1 and 4 year period of temperature/rain/sunlight] https://i.imgur.com/7WDeKAl.png

If any more information would be useful please let me know and I’ll happily try to supply it.
 
pollinator
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Paul Crellin wrote:Hi,


1. As an initial high level question… am I mad to be considering buying this plot for mixed agricultural / forestry / pastoral use? What if considering as a lifestyle permaculture farm where profitability is less important?

It's almost certainly not going to make you much money.

2. Do you think it’d be feasible to have a kitchen garden/small market garden on this ~20% (11deg / 1:5) gradient? Would it be necessary to terrace / flatten it in some way if I wanted to grow annuals? I’m imagine I’d put no-dig beds on contour as I expect that’d be easier to work.


Yes that slope is not a deal breaker, there would be no need to terrace.

3. Do you think it’d be possible to keep small numbers of cows on this slope in a self-sufficient way? I should note that while the slope varies there are no completely flat areas, would this be an issue for the welfare of the livestock? I envisage ideally having 2 cows at a time + potential calves (I don’t like the idea of keeping singles of herding animals). Ideally I’d want to have minimum infrastructure - given our winters are mild I’d hope to be able to keep them outside for as much of the year as possible. I suspect this would probably pushing the land a bit far in terms of its ability to handle the animals when wet and in terms of the amount of pasture/forage it could produce.


Ask local farmers how much land per cow is needed. Down in the South of the country they considered 2 acres enough for 1 cow all year. BUT it's better weather down there and they were not talking about hill land. You'll probably have the have the cows in between November/December until March. It's not the cold that's an issue it's the wet, cows on wet land will quickly ruin the entire thing. If it's very thin stony soil you might be able to have them out longer.

4. I appreciate that there are huge numbers of variables to take in to account here but I’ll pose the question anyway in the hope that someone may be able to offer some insight if not a direct answer… If the answer to the previous question was yes, approximately how many acres would you expect I’d need to give over to 2 cows with calves if they are to be primarily pasture fed (grasses/legumes/etc)
 given it's a north east facing slope?

Max 8 probably closer to 6 (assuming you are not running Holsteins or something silly)

5. Other animals that I’d  potentially look to keep in small numbers are listed below, do you think any of them would have issues with living on this gradient? I understand there can be issues with fencing on steep gradients for some of these animals - if you can think of any other potential issues that may impact keeping please could you advise?
   * Chickens
   * Pigs
   * Other poultry (ducks, turkeys, etc)
   * Goats
   * Sheep
   * Alpacca / Llama


No animal is going to have a problem on that slope.Putting animals on slopes is what we do!

6. I like the idea of putting/keeping at least 30% of the site I eventually purchase back to nature with mixed broadleaf woodland and wildflower meadows or whatever suits it really. I don’t imagine there would be any issues doing this on a slope like this but I’m happy to take advice if anyone would suggest otherwise.


Check the wind levels on that hill, those bushes at the top look rather stunted, you might find that sheep grazed downland is what you naturally have there.


7. I can envisage, in time, trying to put some form of water storage, such as a pond, in higher up on my part of the slope. Do you think that would be feasible given how steep the land is? I should note I have no specific plans in mind at this point but given the droughts facing Britain in future I think early planning for some form of water storage would be sensible.


The land really isn't that steep, planning permission and geology are going to be more of an problem.

8. I’ve not yet done any soil assessments etc and wouldn’t really know what to look for on a site like this. In the past all I’ve done are PH tests and thumb tests for soil type. Would you recommend anything else? Is it worth performing full agricultural soil tests? I expect I should be able to plant to the existing soil types and build soil and solve any deficiencies as and when I need to - is that a bit naive for such a large scale?

It's much easier to start with something decent. one issue up there might be soil depth, I would certainly go look at that.




I have lived in Durham and grown things there, I would not give it a 9 month growing season not even close, sure things might grow, slightly, possibly, but don't expect any garden plants to be romping away in Feb. Remember being close to the sea works both ways, cooler in summer as well so growth is slower.
Basically, yes of course you can have a smallholding there, I wonder why you are looking at such a large piece of land? I have family who grow veg on 6 hectares, they have 5 people full time are fairly highly mechanised and still had to give up their cows/horse as they did not have time to look after them.
 
Paul Crellin
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Thanks for taking the time, Skandi. The feedback is really valuable.

There are cows in the fields opposite so I'll definitely try to get in touch with the farmer there to see what they manage to achieve - they're on less of a gradient and south facing so I'd have to expect to use more land than they do but any info they have would be a great starting point.

Good call on the wind, I've been to the site in different conditions but I don't remember any days where the wind was up so I'll have to keep an eye on that next time I'm there.

For the number of growing days and climate you're absolutely right, not much grows until late spring and it can stop fairly early. I took the figure from the met office graph here and rounded it down slightly given my past experience of growing veg in this area: http://www.carbonbrief.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/MetOffice_GrowingSeason.gif . That's defined as "starting when the temperature on five consecutive days exceeds 5 °C, and ends after five consecutive days of temperatures below 5 °C." - I wonder why that's used in the UK, it does seem as though that would rather inflate the figures of productive growing days.

With regards why the large piece of land. It's easily twice as large as what I would actually like but it does have other benefits such as a house with it, it is is close to my family and friends, and it is commutable for work as I'll still be full time employed for the first few years at least. I've been looking for a while and it has been rare to find anything that ticks these boxes and is still in my price range. If I found the perfect piece of land elsewhere in the country it probably wouldn't be sustainable due to being disconnected from my community etc and as this is for lifestyle reasons the location is a more significant variable for my situation that the productivity of the plot - although obviously that still plays a part as too little productivity could make it infeasible.

The intention is for myself and my family to eventually be largely self-sufficient in food / fuel / etc, have a healthier lifestyle and reduce our impact on the climate - even if that means a lot of hard work. The size of the land is actually why I was looking in to / asking about animals - before considering this site I didn't intend on keeping anything more than some kind of poultry. But given the acreage I think I'd need to do something to prevent it from turning to scrub and animals would be one of the options I'd consider.
 
pollinator
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I found sepp holzers permaculture book to have a lot of good info on workimg with steep slopes.

Spoiler, narrow terraces , silvopasture, animals, ponds. All do-able. But great care and thought is required to study the site, slowly transform the land and to avoid erosion causing mistakes.
 
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What are the cow plans? Is it 2 femalea, no bull? What is the plan for their offspring? Sell them, raise them and harvest them? These lead to lots of other questions.

My place has 2 breeders and one bull. But i raise them to harvest time. This means i always have 5 (the 3 plus 2 offspring). And for half the year i have 7 (2 new offspring added but original 2 not ready for harvest yet)

See how things get out of hand pretty quickly? Sometimes i think "why am i doing this?:. If i used Salitans approach of buying cows at 500 pounds and not breeding them, it would be so much easier. I can raise them to slaughter, then take half a year off and let the grass grow. I have criticized this method cause its not "self sufficient ". I want to go full circle. From birth to plate.

I would maybe advocate the Salitan thing on the first go around. It gives you an exit strategy if land cannot support them. Puts a lot less pressure on the grass than getting to 7 cows. I'm just too stubborn of a Homesteading Texan to do it myself
 
wayne fajkus
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You also mentioned the neighbors having cows. Would you call that fence bull proof?
 
Skandi Rogers
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Paul Crellin wrote:
The size of the land is actually why I was looking in to / asking about animals - before considering this site I didn't intend on keeping anything more than some kind of poultry. But given the acreage I think I'd need to do something to prevent it from turning to scrub and animals would be one of the options I'd consider.



HA I know that feeling I've got 3.2 hectares at the moment (will be dropping 1 as it's at a different property) and we're going to have to get something to graze we're looking at 2 yearling cows probably highlands/belted Galloway or crosses there of as those are the small cows we can get, however there are a lot of Holstein boys being brought up round here so it may be a pair of them. of course at 1 acre of land for them we don't have enough for year round grazing, I would get them in April when the grass starts and cull/sell in November when the grass is gone and my potatoes are all used up! I thought about sheep, but the husband doesn't like to eat wool (his words not mine) and I don't really want any animals over winter. Also his dad was a dairy farmer and still is the local AI man, so they have plenty of bovine experience.

 
Paul Crellin
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J Davis wrote:I found sepp holzers permaculture book to have a lot of good info on workimg with steep slopes.

Spoiler, narrow terraces , silvopasture, animals, ponds. All do-able. But great care and thought is required to study the site, slowly transform the land and to avoid erosion causing mistakes.



Thanks J Davis - I've actually got that one in my reading stack at the moment, but have not started it yet. Perhaps I should prioritise it.
 
Paul Crellin
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wayne fajkus wrote:What are the cow plans? Is it 2 femalea, no bull? What is the plan for their offspring? Sell them, raise them and harvest them? These lead to lots of other questions.

My place has 2 breeders and one bull. But i raise them to harvest time. This means i always have 5 (the 3 plus 2 offspring). And for half the year i have 7 (2 new offspring added but original 2 not ready for harvest yet)

See how things get out of hand pretty quickly? Sometimes i think "why am i doing this?:. If i used Salitans approach of buying cows at 500 pounds and not breeding them, it would be so much easier. I can raise them to slaughter, then take half a year off and let the grass grow. I have criticized this method cause its not "self sufficient ". I want to go full circle. From birth to plate.



There are no specific plans at the moment, this is more a feasibility assessment to see if there are options to use livestock in future to prevent the land from turning to scrub and for some form of harvest - cows would be my first choice for dairy and/or meat. That said I did have a picture in mind of no bull (may hire to impregnate cows), a couple of cows to provide dairy with the calves probably being harvested for meat (I'd pictured one cow calving per year), but I'm completely uninformed at the moment and I wouldn't intend on following through until I've done much more research. Right now I'm trying to determine whether this plot is suitable and what a multitude of future scenarios would look like. I really want to go for it but I'm crazy anxious because it's so much more than anything I've dealt with before.

wayne fajkus wrote:
I would maybe advocate the Salitan thing on the first go around. It gives you an exit strategy if land cannot support them. Puts a lot less pressure on the grass than getting to 7 cows. I'm just too stubborn of a Homesteading Texan to do it myself



Really solid advice, thanks. I think this makes perfect sense for someone such as myself who would just be starting out with cattle on an unknown plot.


To answer your other question about the fence, it's actually on the slope opposite that has a road and a few houses between.
 
Paul Crellin
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Skandi Rogers wrote:
HA I know that feeling I've got 3.2 hectares at the moment (will be dropping 1 as it's at a different property) and we're going to have to get something to graze we're looking at 2 yearling cows probably highlands/belted Galloway or crosses there of as those are the small cows we can get, however there are a lot of Holstein boys being brought up round here so it may be a pair of them. of course at 1 acre of land for them we don't have enough for year round grazing, I would get them in April when the grass starts and cull/sell in November when the grass is gone and my potatoes are all used up! I thought about sheep, but the husband doesn't like to eat wool (his words not mine) and I don't really want any animals over winter. Also his dad was a dairy farmer and still is the local AI man, so they have plenty of bovine experience.



That sounds like a good approach, very much like what Wayne was advocating with the Salatin method.

It seems many people are in the situation where they cannot get their own 'goldilocks' acreage with most plots being too small or too big.
 
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As for the garden, raised bed planter boxes can be built to terrace ridiculous slopes, you shouldn't have a problem.  The uphill side may be 6 inches of soil and the bottom side three feet deep, but that makes them real easy to work.  Just make sure to secure them so the don't slide down the hill in the rainy season.  Last time I helped build such things, we filled the bottom with rock and sub soil so we didn't need as much topsoil.  
 
Paul Crellin
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R Scott wrote:As for the garden, raised bed planter boxes can be built to terrace ridiculous slopes, you shouldn't have a problem.  The uphill side may be 6 inches of soil and the bottom side three feet deep, but that makes them real easy to work.  Just make sure to secure them so the don't slide down the hill in the rainy season.  Last time I helped build such things, we filled the bottom with rock and sub soil so we didn't need as much topsoil.  



Absolutely. This is what I'd pictured for a kitchen garden area near the property. I'd not imagined them quite being 3 feet tall on the lower side, although that probably makes tending and harvesting that bit easier in many cases as there'd be less bending. Thank you for the suggestion.
 
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For what it's worth, I think you should go for it! (But then again, I know, I don't have to deal with the consequences...)

Just to make the move less intimidating, here's a thought. One arrangement that's becoming more and more common around here as smallholder farmers retire and there is no one to replace them, is to ask your neighbours to graze their cows on your land, whichever bit you don't really feel enthusiastic about managing. Make whatever agreement suits, perhaps that you're free to terminate the agreement at any time (or on X months notice) and they agree to keep the grass short and tidy looking in general. The price might be the price of whatever fencing you'll need to keep their animals out of your home garden, plus some butter and steaks! They get extra grazing, you get peace of mind while you're settling into the property and getting going. Just an idea in case that helps push you over the edge. In a good way, I mean.
 
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I have never raised large livestock myself.  However, in research I've done on their management to prevent erosion and desertification, grazing is restricted to land with less than 5% slope. In addition to the increased need for vegetative cover on ground of steeper slopes, it also becomes very difficult to fence steep and irregular terrain. So the way you would avoid overgrazing by rotating pastures would seem to be quite difficult to do on such steep ground. In the Loess Plateau restoration videos, it was mentioned that any land over 15% grade was kept as permanent forest, largely conifers. This was because conifers provide their full erosion control year round, whereas deciduous trees are far less effective in winter. Just my 2 cents.
 
Paul Crellin
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Dave de Basque wrote:For what it's worth, I think you should go for it! (But then again, I know, I don't have to deal with the consequences...)



Haha, thanks Dave. In my heart think I should too - but my head says it could be a big mistake if I get it wrong.

Dave de Basque wrote:ask your neighbours to graze their cows on your land, whichever bit you don't really feel enthusiastic about managing



This is exactly what I'm planning on doing initially - I guess if needed I could drag it out for more than a few years if there are people who are interested in utilising the land.
 
Paul Crellin
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Thanks Ben, it's good to hear contrasting opinions. I've just watched a brief video on the Loess Plateau and intend on watching some of the longer videos in the coming days. It does seem like quite a different environment from what I've seen in the videos although a brief looks at annual temperatures and rainfall actually look fairly similar. Do you by any chance remember any of the sources that suggest grazing should be kept to very gradual slopes?


Ben Zumeta wrote:it was mentioned that any land over 15% grade was kept as permanent forest, largely conifers. This was because conifers provide their full erosion control year round, whereas deciduous trees are far less effective in winter. Just my 2 cents.



This is an interesting point that I hadn't considered before. I've heard that tree roots can reduce when coppiced/pollarded, so it seems to make sense that deciduous trees would lose some root mass in winter. I had a brief read about SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) a few days ago which is basically about having strips of different crops on contour using alternating strips for annuals, perennials, trees/shrubs, etc. It could make sense to include coniferous plants in solutions such as this to ensure there is significant root mass through winter too.
 
Dave de Basque
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I wouldn't extrapolate too far from the Loess Plateau in China, or worry about repeating those conditions in the UK. The Loess Plateau is probably the most erosion-prone major landscape in the world, because of its geology, and is one of the main reasons that the Yellow River is yellow.

Loess is a geological term for (usually) wind-blown sediment. You could think of it as simply dust. (The word comes from German and is related to the English word "loose," which is an excellent description of these soils.) Few or no rocks, very uniform, very little clay, nothing much to hold it together. This accumulated sediment is over 100m thick in China and well over 10m in many of the areas of the US Midwest where the Dust Bowl formed in the 1930s after huge areas of loess soil had been plowed up and laid bare for the first time.

There seems to be very little loess soil in Britain, most of it being in the SE, only rarely over 1m thick, and only extremely rarely of the "true" wind-blown deposited loess sediment kind, as in China.  

As long as you are practicing rotational grazing and are not letting any areas be grazed down to bare ground, you should "probably" be OK.

But a full soil test might put your mind at ease, and I might well do thumb tests of soil from various areas around the property.

Do you see evidence of landslides and slumping in the area at all? Do ask around and keep an eye out for where and when erosion events occur and have occurred. This can actually give you a lot of information and do a lot to set your mind at ease.
 
Ben Zumeta
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I agree that soil type would matter a lot and that sandy silt would be extremely vulnerable. I know nothing about British soils. I do know coniferous forests of the pacific NW.  The erosion preventing and water infiltrating power of conifers in winter, when most of our rain occurs, comes from the vastly greater surface area they have versus dormant deciduous trees. A large redwood can absorb 3/4” of rain in an hour before it has any substantial runoff. After a very dry summer and fall last year many rivers in Oregon below extensive conifer forests did not rise at all after a 2” rain on thanksgiving day.. It can take 70yrs for a raindrop  to go from hitting an old growth conifer  to flowing into  the waterway downstream (Mollison, though I don’t know how one would test that). Given  that you have more evenly distributed rainfall conifers would be less naturally dominant than my area, but my original point was that it is  worth considering how you are going to keep your soil covered with grazers on steep ground. It is pretty universal that overgrazing on steep terrain can cause severe erosion (this has happened in masse in Ancient Rome, the American West, and Africa  as well as China),  it seems Sepp Holder has figured it out in similar  terrain to  what you talk about. It seems some major earthworks for narrow terraces like mentioned above would be in order, and this would solve the fencing on steep terrain problem.
 
A timing clock, fuse wire, high explosives and a tiny ad:
dry stack step
https://permies.com/t/125100/dry-stack-step
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