What in the world is Silvopasture?

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Have you heard of silvopasture? This system of managing grazing animals in a temperate forest ecosystem is quite common in Europe but it didn’t quite make its way over to North America with the colonists. They must not have realized the benefits of silvopasture: healthier animals, better soil, less pest control and mowing, and climate change mitigation?!

Read on for the basics of silvopasture in the following excerpt from Silvopasture that has been adapted for the web.


What is Silvopasture?

The foundational concepts of silvopasture challenge our notions of modern agriculture and land use as we know it. For centuries European colonizers of North America have engaged in practices that separate the field from the forest, and even the food from the animal. In silvopasture, trees, animals, and forages for those animals are integrated as a whole system that is greater than just the sum of these parts.

The word is a combination of the Latin root word silvo- (as in silviculture or forestry) and pasture, which implies grazing. Such a system offers not only the promise of ecological regeneration of the land but also an economic livelihood, and even the ability to farm extensively while adapting to a changing climate. And as we will learn, planted silvopastures rank among the most effective approaches to sequestering carbon while farming the land and soil.

Silvopasture is not, however, as simple as allowing animals into the woodlot, or planting trees into the pasture. It is, and must be, intentional, steeped in careful observation skills, and flexible to the dynamics of such a complex ecology. It requires a farmer who is proficient in understanding grassland ecology, forestry, and animal husbandry at once. She or he does not need to be an expert in all of these disciplines, but rather familiar enough to make decisions on a wide variety of timescales. A silvopasture system will inevitably look different from year to year, and careful design, creativity, and visioning for the future are all part of the equation.

If we travel away from North America, silvopasture is sometimes just called “farming,” whether it’s because in dryland climates animals demand shelter from the hot weather to survive, or because of cultural custom. Though this type of mixed farming is common in Europe, South America, and many other regions worldwide, it never arrived with the colonization of the temperate eastern and midwestern parts of the United States—the regions where the conversation in Silvopasture is focused. This lack of transfer was likely because the forest ecotypes found by early settlers were so dense, diverse, and vast. During their imperialism, Europeans spent most of their time clearing trees, opening land to the plow. A well-documented fear of the woods meant that harsh lines were drawn between field and forest in the minds of early colonists, as they came to be a dominant force on the American landscape through exploitation of both the land and its longtime inhabitants.

Prior to colonization, native peoples had cultivated a wild ecology that included mixed woodlands, forests, and grasslands. They traditionally hunted wild game for food while cultivating a mosaic of gardens and farms for staple crops. Their main tool—fire—created a mixed woodland in many places, where trees were widely spaced and the concepts of “field” and “forest” were blended on a continuum, much more mixed in their composition. Some crops, such as the three sisters of corn, beans, and squash, were widely cultivated on an annual basis, while others such as black walnut, apple, and peach orchards were a multigenerational community effort.

Today we are left with a legacy of not only the choices of early American settlers to extensively clear land, but also the footprint of modern industrial agriculture, which has largely stripped the soil of nutrients and degraded its structure. Trees are all but gone from the pasture, limited to the occasional hedgerow that a farmer happened to keep. Farm woodlots are an afterthought for productive use, only occasionally visited for timber or firewood harvest. Animals are confined and fed predetermined rations of food imported from places far away. Yet despite this being the dominant farm paradigm, we see the slow emergence of a new type of agriculture, one that re-blends the best that field and forest have to offer. This practice is known as agroforestry, and silvopasture offers one of the most promising agroforestry practices for this time in history. While silvopasture as a practice is relatively small in the temperate United States, interest and momentum are growing.

Examples of specific systems are what really give us a sense of the possibilities. Just a short list of the varied systems includes:

  • A honey locust plantation for shade, pod production, and leaf fodder combined with sheep grazing in Virginia
  • Oxen and pigs used to clear forested land in New Hampshire to create space for new market gardens and orchards.
  • Turkey used for controlling pests and fertilization on an apple cider and asparagus farm in New York.
  • Sheep who graze the understory of hybrid chestnut and hickory plantings to make for an easier harvest for a nut nursery in Minnesota.
  • Cattle maintaining the understory and providing short-term yields (meat) for southern pine plantations in Alabama.

Each of these examples is quite unique and different from the others, yet they all share common goals, components, and philosophies. The systems may take several years to establish, but many farmers see the benefits of this type of production in the longer-term view. Some of these benefits include better support of animal health, more yields off the same acreage, reduced inputs to deal with pests and keep fields mowed, and healthier soil.

There is another big benefit that is not often the first reason for farming in silvopasture but one that will continue to prove critical: climate change mitigation. As described later in Silvopasture, research shows that mixed systems such as silvopasture sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere better than forests or grasslands alone—which represents a substantial part of the potential solution to global warming. Equally compelling is the positive aspect of silvopasture to buffer against the unpredictable nature of change: increased rainfall, longer droughts, and more intense storm events that are an inevitable part of our future.

Attitude Determines Success

All this sounds very positive, but how do we get there? It’s important to note up front that while we have a lot of knowledge about silvopasture’s parts (pasture management, forestry, animal science, and so on), the combining of systems in the temperate United States is still a bit of a grand experiment. As such, it’s important to identify potential hazards and pitfalls, and proceed with caution as we design and implement.

One of the largest challenges is to be thinking in the long term—decades and generations—rather than in just months or years. When a vegetable farmer tries out a new technique, he or she gets feedback if it’s working (or not), usually that same year or maybe the next. Damage to trees can take upward of a decade to show up, however, and by the time we notice the symptoms, it’s often too late to do anything about it.

The aim of Silvopasture is to articulate the components and design of silvopasture systems and highlight best management practices so that those interested in working silvopasture into their land-use strategy do so in the best possible way. A combination of research into the practice, and the experiences of farmers on the ground, provides readers with a solid list of dos and don’ts as they translate the information to their own context. By no means is this list complete.

Each silvopasture plot, even within the same farm, is unique. It expresses itself differently depending on the year, season, weather patterns, animal behavior, and choices the farmer makes. Each element has its role to play: The plants translate sunlight into plant mass, then the animals harvest the green parts and produce foods; the humans harvest wood, food, and materials; and the fungi, bacteria, and other microbes balance the soil.

In this great dance, we humans ultimately play the role of determining the fate of each player, a role none of us should take lightly or for granted. The more we as farmers act in response to the clues each element of the farm gives us, the less work we have to do, and the more ecological and sustainable is the system.

Rather than thinking of ourselves as “the deciders” or as having dominion, we are better off seeing our role as that of providers and orchestrators: We provide the needs of each living element in the system, so they may thrive. In doing this we orchestrate the type, frequency, and duration of the interactions among organisms. If we wait too long to move our animals, the trees or forage might suffer. If we don’t keep our animals on fresh ground, they might succumb to malnourishment or disease. If we time everything right, and sometimes with some luck, all parties benefit.

To some, conducting this symphony of nature is also known as “work.” Many who already raise animals are resistant to rotational management because it’s “too much work.” And in some ways it is more work—especially in the establishment phase of the process. Yet this book will show how the notion of work is relative, and that in the end it isn’t about more or less work, but about what kind of work the farmer does.

Silvopasture is not for everyone. It is for someone who reads descriptions of a practice that is part science and part art, and gets excited by it. It is for those farmers who love being part-time ecologists, naturalists, mechanics, and engineers, all wrapped into one. It is for those who are eager to ask questions and not necessarily find out the answer right away. It is for those who find farming to be a lifestyle, and not only a job, though it does need to pay. It is for those who want to grow and change in their thinking and perspective as they form a more intimate understanding of the great wide world we are fortunate enough to inhabit.

Ultimately, those who possess a desire to farm in a way that balances practicality with creativity, determination with flexibility, and planning with adaptation will succeed not only in farming, but in life. The willingness and eagerness to rise in the morning and seek to make the system more efficient, and to better support ecological good, as well as the positive health and well-being of all creatures involved (human and not), is essential. This is paramount not only to a good life, but to the overall survival of our species in a world that is quickly changing.

The Main Components of Silvopasture

Since Silvopasture is primarily about the practice of silvopasture, it is useful at the outset to offer an overview of the key principles and approaches that are part of the system, regardless of the specific species or site context at play. Whether you choose to graze sheep in a Christmas tree farm, move cows through a walnut plantation, or graze chickens through an apple orchard, these elements are universal for successful silvopasture.

1. Silvopasture can be established in existing woodlands, or trees can be brought into pasture.

2. Animals are matched to land type and successional stage.

3. Animals are always on a rotation.

4. Trees should match the soil type and microclimate and have multiple functions. 

5. Forage and fodder should be diverse and support a resilient food supply for animals.

6. The system is ideally optimized to stack inputs and outputs 
in both space and time.

 

 

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Silvopasture

A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem

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