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Silvopasture
Credit: Paige Green / Fibershed

Silvopasture

Call to action:

Expand the use of silvopasture to improve soil health, raise livestock, diversify incomes, and increase water quality, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat.

Silvopasture is the intentional combination of trees, pasture, and livestock in ways that mimic natural ecosystems. Trees provide shade, timber, firewood, food, and shelter. Fallen leaves and branches become mulch, enriching soil with organic matter. Trees and grasses sequester carbon. Livestock provide ecological benefits. Silvopasture can restore degraded land and provide short- and long-term income sources. It is a type of agroforestry that has been in use globally for centuries. More broadly, it is part of agroecology, a nature-based food production system that integrates ecology, culture, and economics (see Agroecology Nexus and Agroforestry Nexus).

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why silvopasture is a regenerative system of food production and land management. Silvopasture systems are based on the interactions among trees, grasses, and grazing animals in nature. It is a traditional practice with a long history that is becoming popular again. Some systems emphasize animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, pigs, horses, chickens, yak, and deer. Other types of silvopasture focus on tree crops and wood products, with grazing as a complementary activity. Silvopasture’s integration of trees, plants, and animals in a single system can restore and maintain biologically healthy soil, critical to ending the climate crisis. It can eliminate weeds and other undesirable plants. It can facilitate the reintroduction of beneficial fire into ecosystems. It can reforest degraded land, create wildlife habitat, and supply healthy food, including grass-fed meat (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus and Degraded Land Restoration Nexus). Examples include:

Support silvopasture by buying products from farmers and ranchers who practice agroforestry and regenerative agriculture or from retailers who support them. Purchasing items produced by these methods encourages others to adopt similar practices and goals (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus and Agroecology Nexus for more suggestions).

Donate to or join organizations that support silvopasture. There are many choices across various subject areas, including volunteer projects and other community-based initiatives. See Key Players below and Key Players in Agroforestry Nexus, Regenerative Agriculture Nexus, and Agroecology Nexus.

Groups

Farmers and Ranchers

Adopt silvopasture practices. If you are a rancher, pastoralist, or farmer with livestock, consider implementing silvopasture practices. They can be established on almost any type of arable land. The combinations of trees, plants, and grazing animals are diverse and can be designed to fit the farm. Silvopasture benefits include improved animal health and comfort, better use of marginal farmland, increased carrying capacity, vegetation control, diversified income streams, and improved wildlife habitat. Annual income from crops and livestock can support the farm while the tree and vine crops mature. However, many systems are management intensive and require a diverse skill set. Major factors to do (drawn from the work of silvopasture expert Steve Gabriel) include:

  • Create a long-term plan before you start. Silvopasture is more than simply turning animals into a woodlot. Planting and growing trees as part of a silvopasture system requires a well-designed, long-term plan before getting started, including the development of appropriate infrastructure. What are your goals? Do you want quick-yielding returns from fruit trees? Or are you willing to wait for timber?
  • Determine whether you will be working in an existing forest or an open pasture. Creating a silvopasture system in a forest is a different process than planting trees in open pasture, requiring the farmer to change the forest ecology to support the grasses needed as forage. In open pasture, the goal is to add trees without blocking too much light from hitting the ground, which could suppress forage growth. Careful selection of trees is required. Trees in silvopasture systems should match local soils and climate and have multiple functions. They can be planted in rows, clusters, or evenly spaced.
  • Get training (see below). Silvopasture requires knowledge of grassland ecology, forestry, and animal husbandry. A farmer does not need to be an expert in all of these, but familiar enough with each to make sound decisions. Look for silvopasture planning manuals. Here is one developed for the north central U.S.
  • Choose the grazing animal type carefully and keep them on the go. Livestock can damage tree roots, strip leaves and bark from young trees, and cause erosion. Pigs can quickly denude an area of vegetation. Poultry scratching can expose bare soil. To avoid these problems, the timing and intensity of livestock grazing must be carefully controlled, usually for short durations of time (see Improve Livestock Grazing Practices below). 
  • Design for diversity. Include as many ecological zones and vegetation types in the silvopasture system as possible in order to give livestock and wildlife access to diverse and nutritious food. The diversity of silvopasture systems can buffer a farm through drought and storm events.
  • Be patient. Silvopasture systems often take many years to fully mature. Start-up costs can be high and yields may drop in the early years as land and animals adjust. Get the fundamentals of the grazing program in place first, then bring in the forestry.
  • Draw upon the knowledge of others. Learn more from silvopasture specialist Steve Gabriel in a three-part webinar. Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Improve livestock grazing practices. Grasslands and savannahs are home to herds of herbivores, such as bison, which have evolved their grazing behavior over millennia. Mimicking the “graze-and-go” behavior of native herbivores with domesticated livestock supports the biological health of these ecosystems, improves water cycling, reduces erosion, and can increase the amount of carbon that can be sequestered and stored in soils.

Get training in silvopasture and/or consult with experts. There are many resources for farmers and ranchers. The Rodale Institute, a leader in organic and regenerative farming in the U.S., has a consulting guide for landowners. Consultants that work with landowners to improve their land and/or teach workshops and seminars include the Soil Health Academy, the Land Stewardship Project, and Rhizoterra.

Scientists

Expand research into silvopasture practices and customs. In much of the industrialized world, forestry and agriculture were treated as separate disciplines. In recent years, this situation has changed as researchers study the many interconnections between sustainable farming and forestry practices and cultural heritage. One example is agroforestry’s potential for ending the climate crisis. Research on silvopasture has lagged behind other subject areas but it has made important strides in recent years. Additional work by will help make silvopasture more useful to farmers, ranchers, and others. Topics include:

Companies

Implement policies and remove barriers so that farmers can more easily transition to silvopasture and agroforestry systems. Policies need to be adopted and implemented that support silvopasture, particularly in regions with chronic poverty and hunger. This includes supporting on-farm innovation, removing barriers for farmers transitioning to silvopasture systems, and providing funding for research and training programs. For recommendations, see Agroforestry Nexus and Agroecology Nexus.

Learn

Read

Agroforestry Practices: Silvopastoralism by Gerardo Moreno and Victor Rolo

Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (orig. 1929) by J. Russell Smith

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volumes) by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice by Eric Holt-Gimenez and Raj Patel

A series of books titled Advances in Agroecology by Louise Buck and others, including agroforestry, landscape ecology, and many other topics

Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin

Holistic Management by Allan Savory

Listen

Silvopasture podcast (Agroforestry series) by Ben Bishop

32 podcasts about silvopasture

Mongabay podcasts on agroecology

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