Silvopasture: Growing Quality Trees & Livestock Together
Grazing livestock in woodlands is commonly practiced the world around. In some places, like the Northeast, however, this grazing method became taboo in the later part of the 20th century due to overgrazing and environmental concerns.
Today, silvopasture advocates like Cornell University’s Brett Chedzoy are trying to change that. Chedzoy serves as the Senior Resource Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension. For over the past 10 years, he has spoken widely to landowners and livestock producers about silvopasture across New York and greater Northeast. He describes silvopasture simply as growing quality trees and forages together on the same land base.
“It’s growing good quality functional trees with good quality forages, so we are getting the best of both worlds,” says Chedzoy. “We have something there to feed our livestock but we are also growing trees for all the benefits which they give us.”
Trees help to reduce air pollution, control stormwater, capture carbon, improve water quality, and decrease energy consumption. In a silvopasture scenario, they also provide shade for the animals, shelter for wildlife, and protection for the soil and watershed, along with their value for timber products. Many wildlife species also benefit from having the herbaceous understory which silvopasture encourages.
Silvopasture differs from the historic management of woodland grazing in the past, in that livestock are managed in a way that is beneficial for the land, forages, and trees. “We now have the knowledge and tools with intensive rotational grazing and the equipment from companies like Gallagher that make it easier to keep animals where we want them,” says Chedzoy.
According to Chedzoy, many land issues today can be addressed by using livestock as a tool, such as controlling invasive forest vegetation and rehabilitating degraded farm woodlots. In addition, he notes it’s becoming increasingly important for farms to remain viable and utilize all their land, not just the land that they were traditionally told is suitable for grazing.
In the case of Chedzoy’s own 200-acre family farm in New York, he explains it’s half woods and half pasture. If they only utilized the wooded acreage for timber harvest alone, their farm would be missing a huge opportunity to do more with the land and increase farm profitability. Strategically using managed grazing to turn their woodland acres into silvopasture allows Chedzoy’s family to not only increase their operation’s profit potential per acre, but also provides a way to manage noxious, invasive plants on their forested acres.
“Silvopasturing has to be done in a way that is sustainable over time,” says Chedzoy. “We use rotational grazing and make sure there are ample rest and recovery periods. That’s how we avoid a lot of the issues that were of concern in the past - things like soil compaction or damage to good quality trees by restless, bored livestock.”
Chedzoy describes silvopasture as not that much different from how sugar maple trees are managed for maple syrup production. In the Northeast, this is known as “sugar bush.” “We’re doing things in the woods that may seem unorthodox like fencing, developing water systems, establishing forages,” says Chedzoy. “It’s really not that different from how you manage woods for sugar bush. They put out all sorts of things like tubing and high tensile wires to support the main lines that collect sap and also do intensive thinning of trees.”
Another factor that separates silvopasture from woodland grazing of the past is the quality and quantity of food present for animals. In woodland grazing, animals are put into an area to forage for whatever is there, which typically isn’t much. Unthinned woods don’t allow much sunlight to reach the ground which translates to less forage or edible plants being available.
To create a silvopasture, trees in a wooded area are intentionally thinned to create a more savannah-like setting. This allows more sunlight to reach the ground allowing more understory plants to grow.
Creating a good quality productive silvopasture requires investments of time and money,” says Chedzoy. “I would encourage graziers to do a site evaluation. Start with their better sites or those that have higher potential because you want to make sure there are going to be productive enough to have a good return on the investment.”
For example, Chedzoy points out, don’t try to develop silvopasture on a marginal wetland or on a high, dry rocky ridge top with a lot of exposed bedrock. The highest and best use for those sites may be silvopasture, but they are likely not suitable to grow good quality forages so the benefits don’t outweigh the cost.
“This is a decision that has to be done in the context of every farm,” says Chedzoy. “What I might consider adequate ROI may not be the same as what you may consider on another farm or ranch.”
Chedzoy and his forestry extension counterparts have developed a 10-questionnaire to help landowners evaluate silvopasture site potential. The site evaluation questionnaire addresses issues like accessibility, inherent site quality, water availability, fence-ability and forage availability. The grazier gives a site a subjective score of 0 to 10 for each question. Then they answer follow-up questions for each. If a site scores poorly, producers are asked what’s the cost to fix or improve the site if one exists.
As an example, if there’s no water source on the area a producer wants to develop into a silvopasture, it would score low. However, if there are water lines that would allow the installation of an automatic livestock waterer, or if a well can be drilled and a solar pumping system installed for a reasonable price, a site could score high. Site evaluators get a total score for each of the ten questions answered, as well as determine if there is a practical or feasible fix to each of the limiting factors that may be present.
The type of opportunities which seem to have the highest potential are wooded acreage that is in close proximity to an existing grazing system or wooded acreage which is underutilized, degraded, or unproductive,” notes Chedzoy.
With that said, silvopasture can also be created by incorporating trees into open pasture. However, Chedzoy stresses there is a steep learning curve and greater financial investment required with this other approach to silvopasture. In either case, he makes clear a greater grazing skill and knowledge than might typically be needed in an open pasture setting is required.
“It helps to have at least a basic knowledge of silviculture (the growing and cultivation of trees),” says Chedzoy. “I think graziers; however, can compensate by working with forestry experts. There are consulting foresters practically anywhere that trees grow.”
For those interested in silvopasture, Chedzoy recommends seeking out resources online. Universities like Cornell, Virginia Tech, and University of Missouri all maintain archives of silvopasture information. In addition, the USDA’s National Agroforestry Center is an excellent place to start researching the topic.
Chedzoy hosts many national level Silvopasture Tours which present a great opportunity for those interested to see silvopasturing in action and network with others.
More resources about silvopasture and forestry, in general, are available on Cornell’s Forest Connect site. An online silvopasture discussion forum and list of upcoming events can be found on the Silvopasture Network Ning forum.