Northeast Silvopasture Conference 11/7 & 11/8

I spent the early part of last week at the first Northeast Silvopasture conference, hosted by Schuyler County CCE in Watkins Glen, NY. Over 100 folks attended, a nice mixture of grazers, foresters, and outreach professionals from agencies such as NRCS, USDA, and area Cooperative Extensions.

The goal of the conference as I understood it was to expose participants to the system of silvopasture (mixing livestock grazing with tree crops) and begin the conversation of how this could improve farming practices and land utilization in the region. I think everyone has more questions than answers, but I took away a few key points I'd like to share.

Silvopasture with Black Locust

1. Silvopasture is NOT just throwing animals in the woods

There is both a science and an art to silvopasture. There is a three-way management requirement in working with the trees, the grasses, and the animals. Each has to be observed constantly, and fine-tuning is a constant input for the system. This is not a practice where you can throw a fence around animals and walk away without inflicting serious damage to the landscape. (Although in truth, the same is true when we look at these systems independently as well)

2. Silvopasture can come from either end; bring grass into the woods or bringing trees into the pasture.

Each of these applications has some different challenges, and requires a decent amount of upfront expense, whether it is thinning an existing stand of trees to let in more light for grasses, or the planting and maintaining of young trees for the initial 3 to 5 years of establishment in a field, when mortality is highest.

3. There are good economic indicators that silvopasture saves money and makes money for farmers

There were some impressive figures and case studies from the folks down in Missouri at the Center for Agroforestry. These smart folks isolated one variable that would interest any livestock farmer: shade. It is well known that in the hottest summer months animals tend to loose weight as a lot of energy goes to keeping cool. For ruminants (cows, goats, chickens) the heat also slows down the digestion process, meaning it is harder to put on pounds. Bringing shade into the pasture has shown to not only prevent the loss of weight in these animals, but also in many cases helps them GAIN weight. Calf loss in pregnancy also decreases when animals get good shade. Just this one point is enough to consider the practice for many livestock producers.

4. Silvopasture adoption means adopting CROP TREE MANAGEMENT and ROTATIONAL GRAZING practices.

Rotational Grazing = healthy grass ecosystems
There is also good evidence for each of these practices acting as a net benefit to the landscape. In forestry, Crop Tree management is more and more discussed as a method to "leave the best" and focus thinning on poor quality, diseased, and damaged trees. We need to leave the best trees on the stump so they can seed the next forest of quality trees.

In Rotational Grazing, the benefits are numerous. The livestock, the grasses, the soil biology, and the profit margins are all improved. Grazing animals evolved to heavily impact an area and then move on (think Bison in the Great Plains), giving the pasture time to rest and recover. These rest periods are critical to maintaining a healthy forage base. While in nature predators acted as motivation for grazing animals to move on, we can mimic the same pattern with the electric fence, carefully watching our grass and rotating the animals at just the right time.  

5. There are some specific guidelines for management

For example, it is pretty well documented that you need about 50% shade in a Silvopasture to support good growth in cool season grasses. Warm season grasses need about 70% light penetration. Most grasses should be grazed to 50% of their above ground biomass and then allowed to rest. Rest periods of 20 - 45 days provides good regeneration of grasses. (That range is dependent on local conditions) Usually the goal for days on the pasture is 3 - 5 for good forage utilization. A water source should be no more than 600 to 800 feet from the grazing area. These are good guidelines that can help us get started.

6. We need more research and case studies for Silvopasture systems in the Northeast

Most established silvopasutre in the US is in the Southeastern part of the country, and most often with grazing animals mixed in pine plantations. Its likely that not all of our hardwoods will respond favorably to this mix, and folks should be advised that this practice is in the beginning stages of development. I would recommend integrating this into the best forest stands out there, but rather in the use of marginal forest and shrublands that could use some attention anyway. I also think there is good potential to be planting more trees in pasture, though specifics on good species (whether for animal fodder, timber, or nut production) are not well researched.

7. The shift to this paradigm requires experimentation, observation, patience, and interaction.

Farmers and foresters who are looking for systems where they can put animals out to pasture or plant crops with little interaction until harvesting will not be good silvopasture candidates. Those that enjoy watching their animals, observing their plantings, taking good notes, and making small adjustments all season long will reap the benefits of increased economic and ecological health.

We also cannot wait for research to provide all the answers, though coordination between sites would lead to good research. We need to develop concepts of specific species combined with particular management strategies and try them out on a multitude of landscapes, sharing our findings as an agricultural community.

National Agroforestry Center
Cornell Forest Connect
Missouri Center for Agroforestry: Silvopasture
Publication Silvopasturing in the Northeast (FREE PDF)