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If it’s so great, why don’t we see silvopasture everywhere?

By   /  October 26, 2020  /  3 Comments

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I was at a pasture walk some time ago, when the farmer pointed to the few scraggly trees strewn throughout his paddocks. They were close to death, and the grass around them had long been trampled into nothing over the course of a long, hot summer. These trees were the sole relief from the sun, and the herd would always huddle in underneath the one or two trees in their paddock. When the farmer asked what to do, he was told there were two options: Either plant a lot more trees or chop the ones you have down.

I don’t know what that farmer ended up doing with the trees, but I do know that it would’ve been far easier to turn those trees into firewood than plant the rest of his pasture with new trees.

I can’t tell you how many graziers I’ve talked with who share how they’ve always dreamt of trees spread throughout their farm, casting nice dappled shade wherever their livestock wanted it. The story usually goes that they moved onto the farm 10 or 20 or 50 years ago with beautiful dreams of establishing rows and rows of shade trees. But here they are, 10 or 20 or 50 years later, and save for the weeping cherry their wife planted in the front yard, that dream is still no more than a dream.

Barriers to Silvopasture

As committed as a grazier might be to their herd’s comfort or restoring the ecology, there are two real barriers standing in the way of establishing trees at any scale on your grass-fed operation. Those barriers are: protecting the trees, and funding the trees.

In a way, protecting trees has been solved for a long time. You just exclude the livestock from the area, and you’re good to go. One common recommendation has been to fence cattle out and hay the silvopasture area for 10 or so years before letting the cattle back in. If you’re thinking “That doesn’t sound practical on my farm”, you’re not alone. Taking big swaths of land out of grazing is a major interruption to the farm. The trick is to figure out how to gets trees established without majorly changing the way the farm is grazed.

Ever heard that money doesn’t grow on trees? Well, that’s wrong. With 3D grazing your livestock will be healthier, better fed and more comfortable, leading to more cash in your wallet. That said, those money-making trees require money to plant so they can make you money. In other words, establishing trees costs money, and establishing a lot of trees is a real investment.

With these two barriers looming large, you can understand why we don’t see 3D grazing everywhere. Few farmers I know have lots of extra time or money to play around with, and the list of to-dos on your average farm could fill a novel. Planting trees, with their up-front cost and long time until return, just never gets high enough on the priority list.

Overcoming Barriers

Protecting Trees

At Crow & Berry, much of our work goes towards overcoming these two barriers. On the tree-protection front, we are partnering with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, with funding from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), to trial a variety of tree shelter designs, all with the goal of getting trees established in active pastures. As we learn more, we’ll share what we learn.

You can read more about how to plant and protect trees in pastures in this article by Austin:

How to Plant a Tree in Your Pasture

Finding Funding

On the funding side, we connect graziers who want trees with folks who are more than happy to fund those trees. In many cases, our funding partners are non-profit groups who deeply value clean water, bird habitat, carbon sequestration and all the good that trees can do, yet can’t find a home for the trees they would like to plant. By connecting farmers and funders, a beautiful synergy emerges, and graziers can finally realize those tree-filled dreams.

Austin Unruh founded Crow & Berry Land Management. He says, “We believe in the power of good practices implemented by thoughtful farmers to revitalize large swaths of land across the world. Our job at Crow & Berry is to research, trial, and learn how best to integrate trees with active pastures for profit and conservation, and advance that through creative education and partnerships.” Click to learn more and to contact Austin.

We at Crow & Berry have a lot of work to do yet. Protecting trees in active pastures will likely prove to be the easy part to solve. The funding part will be patchy and a bit clunky for a while. While many states can fund silvopasture through NRCS, others do not. Some graziers will choose to avoid NRCS contracts all together, preferring to work with non-governmental groups like conservation-minded non-profits and lenders. Yet until there’s track record, those groups may be hesitant to jump on board. And then there’s the fact that there are precious few demonstration sites that people can walk to really see how one might use trees in a grass-fed operation.

I strongly believe that silvopasture, like grass-based farming, has a significant and expanding role to play in our landscapes going forward. The grass-farming movement had to happen first, or there would be no pastures to upgrade to silvopastures. While silvopasture isn’t everywhere now, my bet is you’ll start to see more and more of it in the years to come.

Austin has been sharing his expertise with the On Pasture community in numerous articles. Click here to see everything to date.

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About the author

Austin started Crow & Berry in 2017 with the goal of helping landowners do conservation that was also profitable. He started with streamside buffers in southeastern Pennsylvania, and when a client asked how to plant trees in his pastures, Austin started down a rabbit hole that just keeps getting longer and longer. When not planting trees he's probably reading about trees, though he's learned to avoid good tree books right before bed, or he'll lay awake half the night thinking. If not reading about trees, a good afternoon is swimming in the pond and eating wild berries with his growing family.

3 Comments

  1. red Slusser says:

    thank you. Trees belong in a pasture. for every one foot of height, they protect 10 feet of ground. We always planted black walnuts in and around permanent pasture. Grass does well, walnut kills fungal diseases, and insects hate it.

    Even here, in Arizona, black walnuts grow fast and well and provide vital shade. A plus, hogs run with cattle will grow fast on the nuts but, they’re like $16.00 a hundredweight right now wholesale. Great article!

    • I have noticed that it does not matter if there are just a few or many trees in a paddock; the sheep will choose one favorite tree to lie under all together whenever they are resting and ruminating. They will trample and denude the area around that favorite tree if allowed, even though there are a dozen other trees they could be using. Have other people noticed this?
      The only solution I have found is to move the sheep to another paddock before they have a chance to do damage.
      Still, sheep need shade and shelter, and trees provide many other benefits as well. So I find the extra management efforts worthwhile.

      As for haying planted silvopasture for 10 years while waiting for trees to mature enough to resist animal pressure, do you know if there are any successful examples of this system in the northeast or great lakes regions?

      What about planting trees/ shrubs around the perimeter of paddocks (hedgerows) where they could be protected by the fences but still provide shade and shelter?

      • Joe says:

        I have found that switching up the grazing patten encourages my flock to chose different lounging areas. They generally chose the highest point in the paddock. I also have noticed that when I let the grass grow tall after a couple spring grazings the flock is content to lie on the cool earth in partial shade from the grass, and they put less manure by the shade trees. Even in the heat of summer. Once I found them using wheel ruts to cool down in a spot where the log trucks drive through a field. They were all facing up hill chewing happily in full sun.

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