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).
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:
- Shade provided by trees provides relief to grazing animals and wildlife on hot days. Here is a story about a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who has spent thirty years planting trees in his pastures.
- Sheep and goat grazing can help keep weeds and other vegetation down and help control the risk of fire. In California, winemakers have employed sheep for years in their fields.
- Pigs can clear forest understory. Their rooting, if carefully managed, can stimulate grass growth. Joel Salatin, a pioneering regenerative farmer in Virginia, has been grazing pigs among his trees for years.
- In Africa and other parts of the world, herding livestock across the land, including forested landscapes, is an Indigenous and traditional way of life, often called pastoralism. Here are case studies from Africa.
- Silvopasture systems can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and buffer the effects of climate change. Here is a story about a tree-planting farmer in the UK.
- In Spain and Portugal, an agroforestry system called a dehesa features livestock, cork trees, crops, and wildlife, and has been supporting farmers and communities for centuries.
- In northwest Arkansas, twenty thousand hazelnut and fruit trees are being planted across a series of pastured chicken farms.
- In Panama, silvopasture is helping to keep ranching traditions alive.
- In Iowa, poultry are being integrated into a silvopasture system on Lucky Star Farm.
- Natural forestlike conditions created by silvopasture can provide habitat for birds and other wildlife and create corridors for their travel between wild, semiwild, and cultivated lands.
- Silvopasture creates attractive, savannah-like landscapes.
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).
- Grass-fed meat and dairy are often produced by regenerative agriculture. A good example is Wholesome Meats. Others include Panorama Meats, Farm Foods Market, Crowd Cow, grassland beef from U.S. Wellness Meats; exotic meats from Fossil Farms, Silver Fern Farms (NZ), Verde Farms (Uruguay), Finca Sarbil (Spain), and Bloomplaats (South Africa).
- Wildlife and bird-friendly beef, such as Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program and Blue Nest Beef, are often produced by regenerative ranchers. Here is a buying guide from the Audubon Society.
- Here is a directory of other farms and ranches in the United States and Canada.
- Eat at a restaurant that supports agroecological and regenerative agriculture. Here is a list of restaurants from Zero Foodprint.
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.
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.
- Control the timing, intensity, and frequency of livestock impact through short-duration rotational grazing. Methods include holistic planned grazing, mob grazing, adaptive high-stock-density grazing, and adaptive multipaddock grazing. For a good review of the positive role livestock can play in reducing their carbon footprint see this article. Learn about multispecies grazing and its various benefits for the land.
- Use a herder to control livestock. Pastoralist communities, such as the Maasai in east Africa, the Fulani in west Africa, the Navajo in the American Southwest, and yak herders on the Tibetan Plateau have employed herders for centuries.
- Primers on agroforestry and regenerative grazing in a farm setting include Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil and his workshop Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem, and Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture (see Read below for more suggestions). The U.S.DA provides a list of resources on soil health (see Agroecology Nexus and Agroforestry Nexus).
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.
- The Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University, Chico has courses and educational materials on silvopasture.
- The University of Minnesota has a Silvopasture Learning Network.
- The Michigan State University Extension Service offers instructional videos on silvopasture.
- The Center for Environmental Farming Systems in North Carolina has teaching tools for silvopasture management.
- The Sustainable Farming Association has an online Silvopasture Handbook.
- Cornell University’s publications on agroforestry and silvopasture can be found here. Its Small Farms Program offers courses in various aspects of agroforestry.
- The Sustainable Farming Association offers workshops, webinars, and educational materials on agroforestry and silvopasture.
- The University of Missouri has an Agroforestry Academy which is designed to train farmers in planning and design. Advance training is offered in marketing, ecology, and economics.
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:
- Practices that improve the efficiency and the productivity of farmers using silvopasture systems, including transition options for new farmers.
- The benefits of silvopasture systems for wildlife and bird conservation.
- Exploring the connections between different silvopasture systems and carbon sequestration and storage in soil. In particular, could silvopasture make beef production “carbon friendly”?
- A multiyear agroforestry research project led by farmers in the UK will evaluate the viability of adding trees to farmland, including farms that raise livestock.
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.
- The positive policy implications of adopting silvopasture is the subject of a study involving the dehesa system in Spain and Portugal.
- Conversion to silvopasture systems has helped farmers in Colombia pull themselves out of poverty.
- In Ethiopia, silvopasture systems that utilize a native Ficus tree have reduced hunger and lessened the impacts of drought.
- An analysis of silvopasture systems in Latin America demonstrates their potential to achieve many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The analysis calls for national governments to support the expansion of silvopasture systems through policies that provide incentives and training.
Sharing Our Roots (U.S.) promotes poultry-centered silvopasture.
Practical Farmers of Iowa (U.S.)
World Agroforestry is a global center for research and implementation.
Savannah Institute (U.S.)
Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Regeneration International (U.S.)
Agroforestry Net is an online library and resource center.
Agroecology in Action focuses on implementing research.
Ecoagricultural Partners (U.S.)
Soil Association (UK)
Berkeley Food Institute (U.S.)
Food Tank is a think tank for sustainable food.
World Future Council identifies solutions, polices, and practices that promote agroecology, food security, and biodiversity.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), leads the UN’s effort to defeat hunger and achieve food security.
CGIAR delivers critical science and innovation to transform the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis.
Steve Gabriel is a silvopasture specialist, farmer, and author.
Greg Judy is a rancher, educator, and expert in high-density grazing.
Mark Shepard is a farmer and agroforestry specialist.
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is an advocate for poultry-centered agroforestry.
Keefe Keeley is the director of the Savanna Institute.
Eric Toensmeier is a carbon farming and perennial plant specialist.
Steve Gliessman is a scientist and professor of agroecology at University of California, Santa Cruz and a leader in agroecology research.
Miguel Altieri is a professor at University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer in agroecology research.
What Is Silvopasture? (3 mins.)
The Potential of Silvopasture, with Steve Gabriel, Part 1 (36 mins.)
The Potential of Silvopasture, with Steve Gabriel, Part 2 (31 mins.)
Agroforestry Practices: Silvopasture (14 mins.)
What Is Silvopasture? (34 mins.)
Silvopasture, with Mark Shepard (8 mins.)
Integrating Cows, Forage, and Trees (19 mins.)
Converting Pasture to Silvopasture (5 mins.)
How Goats Are Regenerating a Forest (12 mins.)
Forest Pigs (25 mins.)
Green Pastures Farm with Greg Judy (12 mins.)
Silvopasture Demonstration in Texas (18 mins.)
Profitable Silvopasture Systems (27 mins.)
Drawdown Carbon with Agroforestry (4 mins.)
Wellspring Farm videos on silvopasture with Steve Gabriel
Agroforestry Practices: Silvopastoralism by Gerardo Moreno and Victor Rolo
Farming the Woods: An Integrated Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel
Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (orig. 1929) by J. Russell Smith
Edible Forest Gardens (2 volumes) by David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers by Mark Shepard
Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops by Martin Crawford and Joanna Brown
Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice by Eric Holt-Gimenez and Raj Patel
Iwigara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science by Enrique Salmon
Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity by Sara Scherr and Jeffrey McNeeley
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanna Simard
Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (2nd ed.) by Miguel Altieri
Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture (3rd ed.) by Stephen Gliessman
A series of books titled Advances in Agroecology by Louise Buck and others, including agroforestry, landscape ecology, and many other topics
Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey by James Rebanks
Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin
Holistic Management by Allan Savory
Silvopasture podcast (Agroforestry series) by Ben Bishop
32 podcasts about silvopasture
Mongabay podcasts on agroecology
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