Combining forests and pasture to make the most of land
Viewed over the span of human history, the current separation of agriculture and forested lands is a recent construct. However, integrating forestry and agricultural practices offers opportunities for benefits. Combining forests and pastures, for example, allows trees and livestock to be raised for profit on the same plot of land, and the trees offer shade to shield livestock on hot days.
USDA Forest Service researcher Gregory E. Frey and Virginia Tech cooperator John H. Fike investigated case studies of silvopasture — the combination and management of livestock, forage, and forests — in North Carolina and Virginia. Their findings were published in a General Technical Report produced by the Southern Research Station.
Although running livestock on wooded lands has historical precedent throughout the region, silvopasture has not been widely used in the southeastern U.S. Past mismanagement associated with livestock in woods fostered programs and policies aimed at keeping livestock out, creating a negative cultural perception of trees and livestock together. The cultural impediment and a lack of existing silvopasture models for producers reinforces itself, as landowners have few examples to look to for their farm operations.
With that in mind, Frey and Fike documented four case studies in the region, focused on how farm and plot size affects the success of silvopasture practices.
The scientists established a list of landowners in the Southeast using silvopasture. “Out of that group, we chose four landowners with different scales of silvopasture use, but were otherwise relatively comparable. For instance, they all managed loblolly pine,” explains Frey. “We interviewed these landowners about what they did, how they established the practice, what challenges they faced, what opportunities and benefits they saw, and how they continued to manage their silvopasture plots.”
The scientists then analyzed the interviews and looked for similarities and differences. All of the landowners managed the livestock, the forage that the livestock ate, and the trees — but their motivations for doing so differed. Two major reasons for these differences emerged from the interviews.
The first was that having and managing trees in a pasture creates shade for livestock on hot days. The other reason was that silvopasture provides both a long-term investment – the trees can eventually be cut and sold for a profit – while also generating annual income through the sale of livestock.
Overall, three of the four farmers said that they were satisfied with their silvopasture land and were planning to continue the practice. The scientists also found that the scale of the silvopasture plots independently didn’t affect their success.
The scale of the farm, on the other hand, did seem to be important. This is due to the fact that larger farms are more likely to have more resources to manage silvopasture lands, and silvopasture could be combined with other agriculture and forest parcels on the same farm to achieve scale.
“For innovative farmers with substantial cattle and forestland on their farm already, silvopasture could be a very viable option,” concludes Frey.
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For more information, email Gregory E. Frey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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