Agroforestry Strategies for Landowners

When most people think of livestock and farming, they envision rolling, open fields with cows grazing on green grass. Add trees to that picture, and you have silvopasture — an agroforestry practice that combines livestock and forest management.

silvopasture
Goats clear understory vegetation in this slash pine silvopasture operation. Photo by Jim Robinson, NRCS, courtesy of USDA National Agroforestry Center.

Chris Fields-Johnson uses agroforestry on his 300-acre loblolly pine forest in Scottsville, VA. He had planned to manage the plantation for high-value pine timber, but the forest was overgrown with Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese privet, and tree-of-heaven.

To help keep these invasives in check, he employs 30 Katahdin hair sheep. Each year trees are harvested for profit, and additional trees are planted. The trees help keep the sheep out of the summer sun while they munch on the invasives.

Two recent USDA Forest Service publications focus on agroforestry practices. The national report Agroforestry: Enhancing resiliency in U.S. agricultural landscapes under changing conditions reviews five widely recognized categories of agroforestry: silvopasture, alley cropping, forest farming (or multistory cropping), windbreaks, and riparian forest buffers. The report includes an overview of the potential role of agroforestry in each region across the U.S.

“The national report draws upon the most current science and shows how strategies can improve agricultural production and resiliency, especially under increasingly changing environmental conditions,” says Carlos Rodriguez, Deputy Chief.

The report’s intent is to help landowners and those that work with them to look at integrated agricultural strategies and production systems. According to the report, well-designed agroforestry systems can increase crop yields and per-land-unit productivity.

alley-cropping
This alley cropping system in Florida combines pecan trees with cotton. Photo by Jim Robinson, NRCS, courtesy of USDA National Agroforestry Center.

Research forester Gregory Frey and Marcus Comer, associate professor and extension specialist at Virginia State University, published an annotated bibliography on the impacts of size and scale of silvopasture in the southeastern U.S.A. Frey and Comer reviewed more than 70 research papers on silvopasture.

“Both forestry and livestock-raising tend to be more difficult to implement profitably at very small scales,” says Frey. “We found that the size of silvopasture itself is less important than how the silvopasture fits into the broader farm. That isn’t to say if you have a smaller farm you can’t use some of these practices.”

Being flexible and reaching out for assistance improved success. “Smaller-scale producers can use smaller, more versatile livestock like goats and sheep — like Fields-Johnson did at his Briery Creek Forest Farm,” adds Frey. “Smaller-scale producers will need to experiment and will need access to information from trustworthy sources like county foresters and extension agents.”

“These science-based reports illustrate how tree-based management strategies can improve agricultural production and resiliency,” says Toral Patel-Weynand, director of the agency’s Sustainable Forest Management program and national report co-author. “These practices support key nature-based benefits, including crop pollination, biological pest control, and habitat connectivity.”

Read the full text of the national report.

Read the full text of the annotated bibliography.

For more information, email Gregory Frey at gregoryefrey@fs.fed.us.

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