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Year-Round Grazing Paradise (or at least moving towards that)

By   /  March 22, 2021  /  2 Comments

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I’m a fan of rollercoasters, but only at an amusement park. Not when it comes to business. Photo from Jessica A. Williams, Penn State.

Don’t you sometimes wish it was spring year-round?

As I write this, snow is coming down towards the tail-end of February, and it feels like forever ago since I saw green grass or a tree in leaf. The long winter almost makes you forget what it’s like to just sweat during the summer. Then again, by August you’ve plum forgotten what it’s like to be cold.

There’s good reason to love the changing season. The rollercoaster ride that is forage production is not one of those reasons. The summer slump and a long winter without forage growth both require a lot of creativity and expense in order to keep livestock fed. My goal, as someone who is not a grazier, but rather a tree-person learning as much about grazing as possible, is to determine how and where trees can best compliment a grazing operation. What emerges is a picture of how the right trees, used strategically, can reduce the extremes of hot and cold, feast and famine, resulting in more moderate conditions throughout the year, and more feed during the summer and winter.

What follows is how trees can fit into a pasture-based operation focusing on ruminants, broken down by season.

Can we get to a curve that looks like this? Less severe summer slump due to light shade and availability of some browse shrubs. Fall supplemented by high-energy persimmon drop, and honey locusts pods contributing to a major stockpile going into winter.

Spring

This is the time when grasses and forbs shine. Ideally we select trees species that get their leaves late, and let lots of light through their dappled canopies so as not to interfere with the spring flush. Nitrogen-fixing species, like honey locust, black locust or mesquite will add more fertility to the soil, helping with forage growth throughout the year.

The ideal tree gets leaves late in the spring, has a dappled canopy that allows much light to filter to the forages beneath, and has a canopy high on the trunk, so that the shade (and the livestock in that shade) moves far throughout the course of the day.

Summer

“The ground on which these [black] locusts were planted consisted of a hillside, sloping abruptly to the south…The soil was covered by a good bluegrass sod, but the exposure to the sun was such that the grass dried up early in the summer. It was with a view to making this land valuable to pasture that the locusts were planted…The locust trees soon shaded the ground, and the pasture on that hillside has been excellent ever since. Aside from the pasture this tract has yielded a large number of fence posts.” (Llewellyn Bonham, quoted in J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops, 1929)

Here we start to see the first major benefit of trees as they reduce the heat stress on livestock, thus keeping their production up. As numerous studies have shown, heat stress leads to reduced weight gain, lower rates of fertility and decreased milk production (Florida beef production; effect on milk production). By thoughtfully designing and managing a silvopasture, we can extend the active growing period of cool-season forages further into the summer, as trees reduce soil temperatures both through intercepting a portion of sunlight and through the cooling effect of evaporation.In addition, tree and shrub species can be incorporated to provide edible leaves as browse during the summer slump. This is becoming common throughout the tropics (Jim Elizondo; Intensive Silvopasture), with impressive results capable of doubling carrying capacity or more (See here). While currently not done systematically in the more temperate regions of the United States, several species offer potential as summer stockpiles.

Reducing heat stress on livestock and forages can make a huge profitability difference. Having deep-rooted shrub species like mulberry or even autumn olive as a browse (far right) can reduce pressure on forages so that they’re in better health come fall.

 

Fall

Here is where our feed-dropping trees start to play a major role. As early as August, persimmons can start dropping fruit that is loved by all manner of livestock. That fruit is high in sugars and vitamins, and will provide a major energy boost. If you’re looking to butcher animals before winter, this can help add the final pounds to get a good quality finish.

Honey locust pods drop from November through January, and provide a high-energy feed that will stay good on the ground for months after they fall. Some persimmon varieties can hold on to the tree into January and provide additional boosts of feed into the depths of winter.

Persimmons (left tree) can drop from August to January depending on variety. Honey locust pods (right) generally start to drop in November.

 

Winter

As mentioned above, trees that drop feed (fruits and pods) can contribute greatly to the amount of stockpiled feed going into winter, drastically cutting back on feed cost and keeping that much more income in the farmer’s pocket. We’re not talking a small amount either. A good honey locust tree can drop in excess of 100 pounds of pods per year, and 30 such trees can double the amount of feed produced on an acre of land annually. Additionally, having a good stand of trees will slow the howling winter winds, meaning livestock don’t need to burn as much energy staying warm, putting more energy towards production instead.

Honey locusts are particularly valuable as a winter stockpile, able in many cases to double the amount of stockpile from forages alone. These high-energy pods (up to 37% sugar) make for fat animals and fat wallets.

 

Let me be the first to recognize that there’s a real scarcity of documented examples of a full system like this in practice. The ingredients that make up this system are all certainly out there. Much of the best documentation from a grazier comes from Greg Judy, who shows how grass stays green and palatable longer in the shade of a honey locust in this OP article, how even autumn olives can restore soil and offer valuable fodder, and how much cattle just plain love the shade. Virginia Tech has been doing research on silvopasture systems for years, and has likely the best example of well-spaced, high-yielding honey locust groves in the country, something that I’ll be covering for you in the future.

Is this outside the box thinking? You bet! To many it’s about as far as you can throw something from the box. But if you’re reading this, my guess is your grazing practices would’ve been considered downright lunacy a generation or two back. So I’m in good company.

I don’t think grazing has yet reached its peak. I think there’s ample room yet for growth, for greater profit, for greater land restoration and to support more people doing good work. I believe trees can take regenerative grazing to a whole new level.

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About the author

Austin started Crow & Berry Land Management (CrowAndBerry.com) 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. TreesForGraziers.com and his current work in silvopasture is the outworking of that journey. 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.

2 Comments

  1. Austin Unruh says:

    Hi Tom,

    Good question. One principle is to space trees as evenly as practical. A single tree in a pasture will of course invite all animals to lounge underneath all day, leading to nutrient concentrations and eventually, a dead tree. So spreading trees out evenly, and hence the shade cast by those trees, will go a long ways.

    Second, plant more than just a handful. I wouldn’t go lower than 10 trees per acre, and 30-100 is probably better. The more you can provide distributed shade, the better. Some of the trees you plant will be there for 200 years, and some fast growers you may plant with the intention of thinning them out in 10 years once other trees start to fill in.

    A final practice is to choose tall-growing trees and prune off lower branches, thus raising the height of the canopy. A common and unfortunate sight near me is big, wide maple trees that branch just above where cattle can reach the leaves. With those trees, the shade stays right underneath the tree all day long, and hence the cattle do too. What you want instead is a tree that doesn’t branch for the first 12-20′ or higher, so that the shade moves significantly throughout the course of the day. That’ll keep your livestock on the move as they follow the path of the shade.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Tom Krawiec says:

    Love the information you are providing Austin. It is good to expand my thinking. Could you comment on how to prevent nutrient transfer from open pasture to shaded areas? I am very cognizant of this phenomenon and therefore fence trees and open pasture separately.

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