wooded pasture

Is silvopasture an option for me? By Randy Mell

Professional foresters are educated in the basic needs of establishing and growing trees. During the course of their work, they share with woodlands owners activities they can do in their woods that mimic natures’ way of establishing and improving their trees. Foresters occasionally get questions from landowners on how they can earn more income from their woods.

The most common recommendations are to plant the right trees in the right place and increase the quality of the trees they already have so they are more valuable when they are sold. Both of these activities require long periods of time. They may not be viable options for those who need additional income from their property now.

More timely options are leasing out their lands for other uses, enrolling their lands into a program that reduce land taxes, and provide revenues based on conservation practices installed in the past. But these may still not produce the amount of revenue needed.

This has forced foresters to look even further for other options for landowners. One option (on certain lands or open pastures) is to grow trees and carefully graze livestock on the same piece of ground. Traditionally foresters have not prescribed grazing woodlands as a good practice. In the past, poorly implemented grazing has degraded woodland soils, fertility, and damaged trees, shrubs and flowering plants. So are there ways to graze a woodland, grow quality trees for a future harvest, and not degrade the environment or endanger the health of the livestock?

The UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Division of Extension have been conducting research into Agroforestry. Agroforestry is the science of combining agricultural food production and growing trees on the same land creating an integrated and sustainable land-use system.  Agroforestry practices have been developed where trees and shrubs can be incorporated into the farm in ways that diversify and complement crop production, provide additional income, and environmental and aesthetic benefits. The establishment and maintenance of specific shrubs and trees can create additional yearly income plus benefit wildlife and native plants.

Silvopasture Methods

To learn more about a variety of other agroforestry systems, check out one of our previous blogs. In simple terms, silvopasture is an agricultural practice that combines timber, livestock, and forage production on the same site. Trees provide long term returns, while livestock and forage crops generate an annual income.

In a typical silvopasture practice, perennial grasses and/or grass-legume mixes are grown between rows or groups of trees in the livestock pasture. The trees not only provide a long-term investment for timber or harvestable nut crops. They also provide the animals shade in summer and a windbreak in the winter. Ideally, the tree species selected for a silvopastoral practice should have a local market for the veneer logs, sawlogs, pulpwood, or firewood and produce other products such as nuts or fruit.

To raise livestock and grow quality trees or shrubs on the same land requires the skills and knowledge to prevent resource degradation. Livestock are rotationally grazed through paddocks (paddocks are smaller areas of pasture that are surrounded by fencing controlling what pasture is available to livestock).  Rotational grazing in a wooded setting is a balancing act of these factors: the number grazing livestock, their duration of grazing in the paddock, and soil moisture. Additionally, preventive measures need to be put into place to protect trees and shrubs from damage by the livestock.  Things like fencing to prevent trampling or rubbing of the young trees and limiting grazing duration to prevent over-grazing and soil compaction.

So, silvopastural practices can help landowners to diversify products produced on the farm, increase number of available markets, and farm income. It can also improve soil and water quality. The maintenance of a permanent grassy ground cover in the pasture reduces soil erosion, non-point source pollution and damage due to flooding. The proper use of integrated practices of silvopasture also enhance land and aquatic habitats for fish and wildlife and improve biodiversity while sustaining land resources for generations to come.

If you are interested in learning more listed below are some valuable sources:

Agroforestry Websites: