For farmers interested in rotational grazing, the next step may be a practice called silvopasture.
Silvopasture is the practice of integrating trees and forage into livestock grazing lands. Proponents say the benefits can be seen in the livestock and land when utilized properly.
“It’s another tool in their tool belt to improve the performance of their livestock and to increase the resilience of their pasture and farmland generally,” said Keefe Keeley, co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, a Midwestern nonprofit that focuses on agroforestry.
He said many farms, especially in areas with more hills, already have wood lots. When used for pasture, those wooded areas give livestock shade and allow farmers to get more use out of the acres.
Keeley said that for many years, resource professionals and scientists have recommended against using the wooded areas because, if unmanaged, grazing could lead to loss of plant diversity and soil erosion.
However, by putting in additional effort, Keeley said silvopasture is a practice that should be able to help boost both the land and the livestock.
“We aren’t letting the cattle run in the woods, so to speak. We are going to very carefully manage it to try and optimize the health and performance of the livestock, as well as the health and performance of the land,” he said. “It takes intensive management, so that is what makes silvopasture a new direction for farmers who are already practicing management-intensive rotational grazing.”
In a University of Minnesota web resource, Extension educators Diomy Zamora and Gary Wyatt explained there are two approaches to silvopasture: establishing trees into existing pasture or establishing forages in the woods.
“The right choice of tree (often matched to soils) allows you to carry on a profitable livestock operation while creating a long-term investment in timber and/or forest products. Young trees allow plenty of light for forage production,” Zamora and Wyatt wrote.
Establishing select forages in a forest environment, the area can be jointly managed for grazing and timber production.
Factors influencing this system include having the light necessary for forage growth. Adjust light by reducing tree density and managing tree spacing. Match forage with grazing objectives and light availability. Adjust soil fertility to enhance forage development.
There are challenges to the system, according to the University of Minnesota educators, including:
- Distance and access to water.
- Challenges establishing young trees.
- Challenges introducing forages to existing woodlands.
- Maintaining proper light levels.
- Fencing issues.
But with a well-managed wooded area, animals can enjoy some of the benefits of silvopasture. The shade in the summer and shelter from windy, cold winters can increase production.
“It doesn’t have to be that hot, it could be in the 70s on a humid day, and cattle will already be starting to feel heat stress,” Keeley said.
“With silvopasture, the main idea is that shade can be more spread out, allowing animals to continue grazing while enjoying the shade from a warm day.”
With room to roam and still stay cool, Keeley said livestock are more likely to spread beneficial manure across a wider span as opposed to a concentrated area. This can also reduce water quality issues due to nutrient imbalances in the soil.
Keeley recommends assessing land before considering the practice, as some woodlands may not be suited to grazing.