Instead of farmers or ranchers just turning their livestock into a woodland to graze, experts say they should consider an alternative that’s better for the forest, the soil, their livestock’s nutrition, and their pocketbook: silvopasture.
Farmers and ranchers are no strangers to agroforestry, which includes all manner of farming the forest: logging; growing fruit, Christmas trees or other crops; and/or grazing animals in woodlands. Silvopasturing is agroforestry that steps up the diversification and management intensity, mixing strict rotational grazing with expanded long-term forage, timber and other forest production.
“Pastures with scattered shade trees, loafing areas to escape the heat and flies, or dense woods with sparse understories of edible plants are not silvopastures,” says Brett Chedzoy, a Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist who silvopastures tracts on his own rural New York farm.
“People confuse it with old-style forest grazing,” long seen as damaging to woodlands,” he says. “But silvopasturing is dynamic. You thin the tree canopy and light starts coming into the understory and things start to happen. Then your livestock becomes your tool to help you manage the land.”
Mark Kopecky, soil agronomist for Organic Valley, which has 1,800 organic producers in 34 states, believes only a handful of its members have tried silvopasture. But he thinks it would serve many of them well, especially in the hot climes across the Southeast, Southwest and southern Midwest. That's largely because the shade both relieves stress for livestock and cools the ground, allowing higher quality forage to flourish. He says excess sunlight and heat degrade tall fescue grass, for example, but the fescue becomes much more digestible and nutritious in a good silvopasture.
Many livestock owners are seeing a scarcity of pasture available for grass-fed and free-range cattle, pigs and poultry. Consider the aggregates: U.S. sales of organic food have passed $36 billion a year and has been jumping more than 10 percent a year since 2010, while sales products from grass-fed and free-range animals have been soaring for years. On the other hand, the 2012 Census of Agriculture says acreage of U.S. pastureland is 8 percent less than in 1997; pastured woodlands on farms, 10 percent less.
Kopecky says the supply of grazing land is a mixed bag: Most parts of the country have enough land available for grazing, but many small dairy farms and other livestock operations, such as those of his Amish members in Pennsylvania, have limited space. Or, he says, pastureland that may be available in the Midwest is too dispersed geographically. So silvopasture may offer such farms a good way to add grazing area.
But one thing silvopasture ain't is simple. For example, Chedzoy says, “the managers must be able to identify plant species and their relative feed value, as well as methods for shifting understory plant communities to a more desirable composition for grazing purposes.”
So far, the practice has been tried most often in Southeast pine forests where rain is usually plentiful. But some ranchers and foresters are trying it in the drier West, with some using ponderosa pine as the canopy. Richard Straight, agroforester with the National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, says ponderosa stands are usually thinner than lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and other western evergreens, and don't need as dense of a stand as other western pines to flourish. So he says ponderosa may work well in developing silvopasture's diversified forest or grassland settings.
But as in other regions, Straight says, silvopasturing in the West “is more complicated than just grazing cattle in an open pasture, or just raising trees for lumber.” There, it is most typically practiced for grass-fed cattle or sheep, whether organic or not. Besides boosting quality and quantity of forage that would be produced on the usual forest floor, it spells less heat stress for animals, becomes a means of controlling invasive and undesirable plants, and the frequent grazing rotations reduce damage associated with loafing livestock. “Plus you can still finish your cattle in the feedlot if you want,” he notes.
One silver lining for anyone trying to go organic with a new silvopasture is a possibly abbreviated period to be certified. Sam Jones-Ellard, with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, says the certification process can begin right away if a producer can show that no pesticides or other prohibited substances have been used on the land for at least three years. He notes that producers would still need to comply with other organic crop and livestock rules.
Need help with silvopasture?
Want help planning or upgrading a silvopasture? There are plenty of resources available:
Contact your forest, range or soil specialists at the local soil conservation district, or with the agricultural extension network of your state land grant university. Also, check with your state forester's office.
You can also join a national agroforestry forum for online consults about silvopasture problems, discoveries and successes. And organic producers may want to consult the farmers' advisory council of the Organic Trade Association.
Plenty of solid online info is available to learn if silvopasture is right for you, how to get started and so forth. A concise intro from a Western forests perspective is found here; Southeast region, here; Northeast, here. And USDA's National Agroforestry Center offers an online silvopasture library, too.
You can get USDA dollars to help convert to silvopasture via the Conservation Stewardship Program, or, if you're transitioning to organic, from the Environmental Quality Assistance Program's Organic Initiative. And you may benefit from the Stewardship Contracting done by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service if your silvopasture will be in or near their management areas.
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