Grazing domestic livestock in wooded pastures, or silvopasturing, is a common practice in many parts of the world, but became taboo in some areas, particularly the Northeast, over the past half century when foresters and conservationists began to educate farmers on the negative impacts of allowing unmanaged livestock grazing in the woods. Damages included soil compaction, injuries to valuable trees, and the loss of regeneration due to browsing.
But in the modern world of invasive plants, high land ownership costs, and mounting challenges to healthy and sustainable woodlands, it is worth taking a new look at silvopasturing as a valuable option for the management of some forested landscapes. Silvopasturing differs from woodlot grazing of the past in that the frequency and intensity of the grazing is controlled to achieve the desired objectives. New fencing systems, a better understanding of animal behavior and the evolution of “management intensive grazing” practices have enabled us to gain the necessary level of control over livestock to achieve positive impacts from silvopasturing.
Silvopasturing, the sustainable and symbiotic production of trees, forages and livestock on the same land, is not appropriate for every farm and forest since it requires a commitment to caring for animals, managing the woods, and investing in grazing infrastructure. It also requires managers to identify and protect special ecosystems and wildlife habitats like vernal pools and wooded wetlands when developing silvopasture areas. Silvopastures are best suited for good growing sites with adequate water and gentle, accessible terrain. Examples of silvopasturing can range from enriching a a pasture with a few trees for shade, mast (nuts) and aesthetics, to grazing in relatively dense wooded areas.
To know if you have a good location for a silvopasturing, you need to understand the system you’re working with. This requires knowledge about trees and how they grow, as well as how to manage grazing. If you’re a grazier, you may not know all you’d like to about trees and managing them as part of your grazing plan, but don’t let that discourage you from exploring the possibilities. Here are some ways to jump ahead on the learning curve. We’ll be covering more on this in the future:
- Look for on-line resources. There are a number of temperate agroforestry sites with good articles and information on silvopasturing, though much of the information will need to be extrapolated to your own situation. The “Guide to Silvopasturing in the Northeast” and other silvopasture resources are currently available under the “publications” section of www.forestconnect.info
- Develop woodlot management and animal husbandry skills independently, and then gradually look for ways to symbiotically combine the two systems in a context appropriate for your own property
- Seek out local silvopasture practitioners to see what has worked for them. To ask question and share experiences with silvopasturing, visit: www.silvopasture.ning.com
- Work with a forester who is willing to help you learn and experiment. Expect some resistance at first when you mention the word “silvopasturing”, but foresters are trained to achieve landowner goals. They may lack knowledge on the livestock side of the equation, but their expertise in vegetation and forest management will be invaluable.
From a grazing management perspective, a silvopasture is only as good as the quality and quantity of food available to your livestock. But don’t think that all that is available is grass. In this photo you see sheep and goats enjoying lush, cool season grasses, and black locust sprouts in a walnut/locust plantation that was recently thinned for thousands of dollars worth of posts. This farmer is feeding his livestock and his bank account from the products of thinning.
As this farmer is demonstrating, one of the economic benefit of silvopasturing is the generation of frequent, short-term revenues from the wooded portions of your property. From your livestock you can produce breeding stock, quality meat and fiber. You can also produce posts, and other wood products. These same items can be used for personal benefit and self-sufficiency, which increase the overall enjoyment and utility of woodland. The sale of silvopasture products and the conversion of wooded areas into silvopastures may also help farmers and woodland owners qualify for important property tax abatement programs, depending on particular state laws.
In addition to producing meat and wood products, silvopasturing can also be used as a tool to organically manage undesirable vegetation that interferes with ownership goals. But keep in mind that carefully controlled grazing with the right kinds of livestock at the right time of the year is just part of a larger strategy to deal with nuisance plants. In severely over-grown areas, other methods such as heavy-duty mowing and/or chemical treatments may also be necessary to reduce the height of the target vegetation so that livestock can effectively browse it. Controlled grazing will then help transition the site to a more desirable and stable plant ecosystem. There are numerous other creative strategies for reducing overgrown areas to a more manageable browsing height if a local mowing contractor cannot be found. Likewise, there are a number of practical ways to grow-back desirable plants when the time is right, so creating a silvopasture does not exclude the option of natural regeneration in the future. We’ll share some of those options in future articles.
Some other important points to consider before taking the plunge into silvopasturing are the time, investment and dedication required to succeed. Develop a written start-up plan for your project that outlines where, when, what, why, how and how much you can spend in terms of both time and money. If you have never raised livestock before, take time to speak with livestock specialists from Cooperative Extension and ask them to refer you to other producers who may share helpful advice. Start small because it will be better to make the inevitable mistakes on a smaller scale.
But don’t let the fear of initial failure prevent you from exploring the exciting opportunities of silvopasturing!