The Benefits of Silvopasture
By Steve Gabriel | May 6, 2019
Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing
Usually, farmers and landowners get into silvopasture to take advantage of one or more of its benefits. In 2014 forestry professor and agroforestry advocate Joe Orefice interviewed 20 farmers in the Northeast who were intentionally practicing silvopasture on their land. His research found that the top four reasons these farmers were using this system were:
- Shade for livestock.
- Expanding pasture acreage and diversity.
- Increased utilization of existing farm woodland.
- Increased forage availability during midsummer and droughts.
Other less important reasons mentioned by respondents included diversifying livestock diet, overall animal welfare, the management of undesired vegetation, tree health/fertilization, and increased farm aesthetics.
Each landowner will have to determine for him- or herself what the main motivations are for engaging in silvopasture. While we can promote myriad benefits to farms and the land, in the end the ability to manage a system comes down to economics: Can we pay the bills or not? So think about arranging benefits in two categories: those that support the farm, and those that support the larger world community. Here, we will flesh out these benefits in order to get the big picture of silvopasture as one of the more remarkable agricultural systems available to us.
Benefits to the Farmer and Land
Most important to getting more silvopasture practiced on the ground are the opportunities it provides to farmers and land managers. The following can be seen as the foundation of an argument for silvopasture, while many of the secondary benefits are positive effects on the regional and global scale, described in the next section.
1. Increased use of farmland for production.
Whether or not it produces, land costs money to own. There are many acres of land that are in farms, but not used. These are often edges, hedgerows, and forestland. In New York State, for example, 21 percent of farmland is forest, much of which is only periodically visited and used for activities such as hunting, firewood harvesting, and a periodic timber harvest. Much of this forested land is not pristine woods but a mix of young trees, thorny shrubs, and thickets that don’t allow easy passage.
Silvopasture presents an opportunity to use these more marginal stands of forest. Animals can benefit from the protective aspects the forest has to offer, while the farmer benefits from better utilization of his or her land, as well as a diverse ecology of habitats to work from in a dynamic and ever-changing climate.
On our small farm, we were amazed at just how much land we were missing out on using on our own property and the acreage we lease. Using Google Earth, we quickly realized that by getting into the acres that were “scrubby” and marginal we could increase grazable land that we both own and lease from 22 to 30 acres, a significant increase.
2. Increased carrying capacity and stocking rate.
While one aspect of being able to raise more animals is the ability to utilize more acres of land, as addressed above, a second is the ability to increase both the quantity and the quality of forage on a given acre, thereby increasing the number of animals that the land can handle.
Carrying capacity refers to the number of animals a land base can support in total, while stocking has to do with the amount of animals on a given area of land for a given duration of time. Both concepts are based in the foundations of rotational grazing, where a rest period allows forages to regenerate. By excluding animals and allowing this to happen, more food is made available, and if the food is harvested at the proper time, it can mean that more animals can be sustained from less land.
Through the combination of good rotational grazing of grasses, forbs, and legumes, along with woody plants, you can dramatically increase the available food on your land for your animals. This is one of the more empowering aspects of silvopasture; the idea that you can always improve the food on your land each season means you have a considerable amount of control over the ultimate yield and therefore profit, and also the ability to reduce the need for outside inputs. This has important implications for economics, but also for autonomy.
This possibility is specific to the use of ruminant grazers (sheep, goats, cows) and can apply to any rotational grazing system, trees or not.
3. Increased animal comfort equals improved performance.
One of the most critical benefits cited for silvopasture is shade. The basic logic is that shade reduces heat stress in animals, an effect that anyone who has driven by a pasture on a hot day will notice. Often, though, it’s a scene where the livestock are crammed under the one, lone tree in the pasture, eager to enjoy the meager shade it offers. Those trees, unfortunately, often take such a beating that they die off in a few years, and with them goes the shade.
As readers of this book will come to understand, what at first seems like a simple cause-effect relation-ship is in fact much more complex. So when you’re looking into research, the benefits of shade are hard to pin down. Some studies show clear results, while others debate this, noting the context-specific nature of the claim. The benefits vary depending on the location, seasonal variation, and type of animal. Studies often use artificial shade, which doesn’t really capture the environment trees provide, and only examine the effect of blocking or dissipating sunlight.
Heat stress in animals results not only from direct sunlight hitting animals in pasture, but also from radiated heat from the ground and, most significantly, from the animals’ own metabolism. So the real heart of the matter is the type of environment trees offer to animals, in dynamic weather and climate conditions. In this frame, what is likely more accurate to think about is that trees provide shade and shelter, all while moderating the microclimate for animals. Especially in colder climates, what may be more critical to animal performance are the effects of wind and cold stress rather than heat, which may only become overwhelming in uncharacteristically hot summers, at least in the more northern reaches of the cool temperate climate.
In the end trees help moderate the climate from extremes, and with a changing climate, weather is becoming more unpredictable — and more extreme. While it is hard to pin down specifically what benefits come to pass, it’s important to give weight to them all, and to consider the benefits of shelter from a variety of elements, in addition to shade.
Trees in silvopasture also offer a mechanism to better distribute animal impact in a paddock. A better clustering in one spot during the hottest part of the day, they will continue to comfortably forage, as well as rest, in various parts of the pasture. Thus their impact can be spread more evenly, and they will potentially forage for longer periods of time, better utilizing the forages available.
4. Improved animal health through diverse diets.
Most meat and dairy products we consume are from animals fed corn, soy, and other grains and residues from the cropping production systems that represent the overwhelming majority of modern farming. The animals we raise on these feeds were not designed to digest them, especially in the case of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats). Further, the type of environment a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) provides is nothing short of disgusting. Animals are unable to exercise their muscles, spend hours on hard-packed, dusty ground, and stand in their own manure and urine. Disease and stress are rampant. And animals are fed a formulated ration of feed, with little variety from one day to the next. Research efforts to support CAFOs are usually framed around reducing the myriad issues such environments create. At best this scenario can be made “less bad,” but never will it be good.
When animals eat from pasture, they explore their environment, seeking out their own balanced diet, which varies from day to day, and throughout the season. They exhibit natural patterns of feeding and rest, and need a lot less intervention in the form of antibiotics or other treatments. Researchers have found that animals can even engage in “self-medication” and develop a customized diet to meet their needs in a diverse landscape.
5. Cost-effective vegetation control.
Related to benefit 1 above, often land is not utilized fully because of the presence of thick, undesired vegetation. The cost of removing vegetation either mechanically or with chemical application is often prohibitive, or at least not the top priority on the farmer’s to-do list. Yet if vegetation can be removed efficiently, it opens up new places and possibilities for the farmer to gain access and income from additional land.
There is also a substantial amount of land that has only recently been abandoned by farming, meaning in just the past 10 to 20 years. These old crop and hay and grazing fields are in the process of transitioning back into forest, though often this is hampered by the range of brushy and thorny species that choke out trees, slow the process, and make accessing the land a challenge, to say the least. The more this interfering vegetation grows, the harder and thus more costly it is to clear it for grazing. Knowing this, many landowners default to at least haying their lands or mowing them occasionally to prevent this from occurring. Once vegetation becomes thick and woody, the difficulty of maintenance greatly increases.
Undesired vegetation can be managed by mechanical, chemical, and biological means. Each of these carries a cost, potential negative impacts, and differing time factors. Often, some combination will occur, but animals already being raised as livestock on a farm are arguably the most cost-effective way to transition a landscape over time. This of course depends on the situation, but animal behavior specialists have been able to train livestock to eat weeds with remarkable success. One study at Cornell, focused less on a silvopasture system and more on an in-and-out treatment of undesired vegetation with goats, found that control with goats was competitive with the use of herbicides in terms of cost, especially on smaller-acreage projects.
6. More yields from the same acreage.
While the shade and shelter benefit of trees discussed previously may alone be valuable enough to justify silvopasture, we cannot ignore the potential to go beyond the livestock product to seek out other yields from such a system. Trees offer a number of possible yields we will explore in this book, including feed for animals (known as fodder), firewood, fence posts, hop poles, mushroom logs, polewood, timber, and more. Additionally, edible yields such as tree fruits and nuts are possible, provided we are aware of the regulations and best practices around food safety.
Local demand and markets will be a big driver in the tree choices a farmer makes, as well as the approach to harvesting so that the canopy of the silvopasture remains intact while you harvest a sufficient wood resource. In other words, in most cases it won’t work to clear-cut a silvopasture; it’s better to selectively harvest stems over time.
A big advantage of silvopasturing is that the animals and their products can provide the farmer with short- to midterm financial gain, which helps buffer the wait time for trees to mature to some sort of marketable product. The 10-plus years needed for trees to get established and grow is often a large barrier to farmers adopting them, but the shade and other benefits can be realized beginning just 3 to 5 years from planting, depending on the species chosen.
7. Climate change resilience.
The focus on resilience here is different from mitigation. Resilience has to do with the ability of a system to withstand and recover from changes in the environment. With climate change, animal grazing systems are particularly vulnerable in the temperate climate to increased heavy rainfall, as well as excessive heat and drought. The inclusion of trees and forest-based systems can help buffer impacts from these patterns, as well as shelter animals from intense storms.
Resilience impacts farmers on a day-to-day and seasonal basis, and may be one of the more immediate benefits of implementing silvopasture systems. One of the most striking impacts is in regard to drought conditions, where trees can help maintain soil moisture content as well as protect forages and provide alternative feed, because shrubs and trees tend to do better when the grasses have long since dried up.
Trees and forests also fare better in heavy and persistent rain events, something much of the United States is projected to see increase due to climate change. Recent analysis shows that for many temperate locations in the US, heavy rain events (downpours) are on the rise, when comparing the average events in 1950–1956 versus 2007–2016.
8. Improvements in whole farm viability.
Zooming out to the bigger picture, each of the preceding benefits contributes to an overall improvement in the viability of a farm. The word viability refers to the ability for something to work successfully. What is success on the farm? It is when the production systems meet the economic and social goals of the farmer, all while doing no harm or, better yet, improving the ecological health of the farm landscape.
At the end of the day, while farmers are always concerned with economics, they are also farming because they enjoy the work. Farmers are a social group, and share a lifestyle. It’s important to recognize that farming isn’t just about the money, but also about the type of life it provides for those who participate in it.
So while most of the justification above centers on the ways silvopasture can save time, energy, and resources, it’s also a beautiful and vibrant way to farm. Adding trees creates a more interesting place in which to work and live, for both the animals and the farmer. Providing multiple yields and buffering from the inevitable effects of weather, climate, and markets reduces the farmers’ stress. In the end all these factors contribute to an increased likelihood of success for farms, and a better ability to adapt to change over time.
Cover Courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing
Excerpted from Silvopasture: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem by Steve Gabriel, used with permission from Chelsea Grean Publishing.
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