Management is a key factor of this mixed agriculture practice, which can be a possible source of added income and regenerative agriculture benefits.
May 30, 2023 By Jeff Tribe
Silvopasture provides landowners the opportunity to enhance overall productivity and biodiversity of grazing land or degraded woodlots with a short-term return of forage and long-term agroforestry potential.
“It’s about balancing the trees, the forage and the livestock with ecologically sound principles in a way the three elements are complementary,” says forestry technician Elliott Groen.
Brett James Chedzoy, regional extension forester with Cornell University, was introduced to the concept in Argentina in the early 1990s. Working for the country’s technical co-operation program, he dealt mostly with large ranching operations. The silvopasture concept to which he was introduced there featured significant afforestation, planting trees to enhance pastureland quality while providing long-term timber potential.
The practice dovetailed with landowners’ desire to generate income, doing so in a sustainable, regenerative manner. A savanna-like system is the targeted result, mixed woodland-grassland, trees spaced widely enough to allow sufficient sunlight to reach the ground and support an unbroken “understory” of grasses. A cooler, moister microclimate is the result, allowing better quality forages to flourish as well as providing enhanced conditions for grazing animals. The dual establishment also answered environmental issues including heavy flash flooding, resulting from a long history of overgrazing.
The labour requirement to manage the silvopasture, grow, protect and harvest trees also created a tenfold increase in rural employment, says Chedzoy. “It was a win all around.”
A version of silvopasture familiar to his home state of New York and Ontario, for example, seeks similar savanna-like benefits from degraded woodlots. The initial management tools include selectively culling invasive species and low-quality trees in favour of higher quality forestry potential, in conjunction with establishing a healthy forage understory.
The idea of grazing animals in woodlots might be considered foreign and even offensive to several generations of foresters educated after World War II.
“Up until that point, everybody put animals in the woods because that’s how you put food on the table,” Chedzoy says.
However, through the 1940s and 50s, the toll taken on high-quality hardwood woodlots by unregulated grazing became an issue with foresters. “We didn’t have the knowledge or the tools to do it correctly,” explains Chedzoy. “The easy thing was just keep animals out of the woods.”
A high-quality stand of timber with economic potential is not considered the prime location for silvopasture; unproductive woodlots are preferable. Unmanaged regrowth following heavy historical logging can result in the combination of invasive species and low-quality timber, suitable only for pulp or firewood.
Pointing to a representative acre, Chedzoy says of 250 existing trees, roughly 50 might be desirable “crop” or saw or timber quality trees, with the majority that have lost the race to the sky “still alive, but just hanging in there. The runts and misfits, so to speak.”
Instead of essentially growing firewood in a woodlot, selective culling and understory management can increase a property’s potential. “And reallocate that sunlight down to the soil surface where we can grow quality forages instead.”
Silvopasture requires the diverse skillsets of foresters and farmers, one who gets excited about results in 50 years, the other expecting things to happen in five months.
“One without the other isn’t going to work,” says Chedzoy.He can’t emphasize enough how important grazing management – rotational pasturing – is to silvopasture success. In essence, keeping animals moving to let the acreage rest and recover.
Overgrazing can negatively impact forage and open up opportunities for invasive species to take root, as well as create tree damage that may not show up for a decade, when it’s too late to react. In open-pasture grazing, problems can be fixed with spraying, fertilizing and reseeding. Judicious application of grazing animals is essentially the management tool in silvopasture – enough to get the job done, without hammering a piece of ground too hard.
“Management is key, period,” Chedzoy says. “It’s not going to work if you don’t commit yourself to that. It’s really about being a skilled and observant manager and adapting grazing based on what your eyes and your brain and your gut is telling you.”
Silvopasture can be a productive tool to maintain or enhance overall productivity and biodiversity, says Groen, but it needs to be done within ecologically sound principles.
“It’s all about evaluating the site,” says Groen, who does not recommend converting healthy forest or woodlot into silvopasture. “But if you’ve got a forest that is seriously degraded and you can use silvopasture as a tool to return it to a productive and biodiverse ecosystem, that’s a way to go.”
He is currently working with the Ontario Woodlot Association on funding proposals for ag-climate solutions under the umbrella of carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation. In short, solutions offering environmental, social and economic benefits.
“It has to make financial sense,” he says. “We’ve got to grow enough to feed everyone while taking care of the environment.”
Various forms of silvopasture have been practiced around the world. There are accounts that the Neutral people, a southern Ontario-based Indigenous tribe, maintained American Chestnut orchards, burning the understory to stimulate browse and forages. In modern practice, invasive species such as common buckthorn are removed. Diseased and poor-quality trees are culled to favour better quality timber, leaving a canopy of between 30 and 50 per cent. “It’s like thinning out your carrots,” Groen explains.
Multiple options exist for forage establishment, frost aerial seeding or something as simple as a broadcast seeder and rake, scraping off topsoil, spreading seeds and scraping the dirt back on. Forage options include legumes and a cold-season grass mix with fescues, Kentucky bluegrass, trefoils, rye and clover, or native seasonal warm season grasses like big and little bluestem, Canada wild rye and switchgrass.
Conventional forestry applications tend to have lengthy periods before initial investment is recuperated, says Groen, versus silvopasture’s coincidental annual return on forage. “That’s where silvopasture really shines.”
Simcoe, Ont., orchardist and producer Brett Schuyler, who grazes sheep, sums up silvopasture as “combining trees, livestock and forage to produce product.” While he feels they are gentler than other animals – beef cattle for example – on trees, he echoes Chedzoy’s words on management. “Rotational grazing is critical.”
His initial attraction to silvopasture came from poor-quality woodlots with scant economic value or prospects. Heavily logged 50 years ago, they featured brush, scrub and invasive species.
“There is just a ton of learning, so many variables in a silvopasture system,” Schuyler explains. “It’s so much about pushing it in a direction and observing and learning.” He has found silvopasture a “really rewarding” form of agriculture and a big step in sustainable ag systems, adding the combination of transitional grasslands and mature forest is rare in Ontario.
“Species at risk tend to live in habitat at risk. And there’s very little of this habitat because modern forestry lends itself to mature stands of trees, which are pretty boring places compared to this.
“There are a lot of environmental benefits in a silvopasture system that are pretty easy to see. The birds are chirping and the bees are buzzing and the animals are plentiful – it’s a nice habitat.”
Schuyler utilizes another form of silvopasture in the farms’ apple and cherry orchards, taking advantage of perennial systems that he describes as “pretty awesome” for the practice. “Wind and soil erosion are far less in silvopastured soil with trees and sod than cultivated ground.”
Ideally, the orchard canopy would capture 100 per cent of available sunlight; for a variety of reasons, including drive lanes, that doesn’t happen, providing opportunity for forage growth.
Schuyler Farms tested the practice with a flock of rented sheep; development of the operation’s own flock followed. Geese have been pastured in the orchards as well and while cattle could theoretically also work, there are concerns about heightened risk associated with larger animals around vulnerable fruit trees.
“There are a lot of variables,” Schuyler says. “You have to watch things pretty carefully because you can create a lot of damage in a pretty short time.”
In Schuyler’s apple and cherry orchards, livestock pasturing is limited to post-harvest, which covers potential food safety considerations and avoids conflict with other orchard procedures.
Cherry orchards lend themselves better to silvopasture, as they are generally larger trees, less likely to be damaged and harvested in July. “There is a longer period of grazing after harvest,” he says.
Silvopasturing orchards provides forage while coincidentally trimming grass-cutting expenses. “That’s the idea,” says Schuyler. “Save some money and save some fuel; that definitely happens to a certain extent.” However, there are labour costs associated with both moving the sheep and their mobile electric fencing which must be factored in.
“It’s not easy but it still works,” he concludes. “It’s not for everyone – it’s for those who have a real passion for seeing grazing in orchards. You’ve got to have the passion for it.”
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