The foundational concepts of silvopasture challenge our notions of modern agriculture and land use as we know it. For centuries, European settlers of North America have engaged in practices that separate the field from the forest, and even the food from the animal. Silvopasture systems integrate trees, animals, and forages in a whole system approach that offers a number of benefits to the farmer and the environment.
The word is a combination of the word “silvo” as in silviculture (forestry) and pasture, which implies grazing. Such a system not only offers the promise of ecological regeneration of the land, but also an economical livelihood and even the ability to farm extensively while battling a changing climate.
Silvopasture is not, however, as simple as allowing animals into the woodlot. It is, and must be, intentional, steeped in careful observation skills and flexible to the dynamics of such a complex ecology. It requires a farmer who is proficient in understanding grassland ecology, forestry, and animal husbandry at once. She or he does not need to be an expert in all of these disciplines, but rather familiar enough to make decisions on the wide variety of time scales.
A silvopasture system will inevitably look different from year to year, and careful design coupled with creativity and visioning for the future are all part of the equation.
While Silvopasture as a practice is relatively small in the temperate US, interest and momentum is growing. The examples of specific systems are what really give us a sense of the possibilities. Just a short list of the varied systems includes:
A black locust plantation for fence posts coupled with summer grazing pastures for cattle in central New York
Oxen and pigs used to clear forested land in New Hampshire to create space for new market gardens and orchards
Turkey used for controlling pests and fertilization on an apple cider and asparagus farm in New York
Sheep who graze the understory of hybrid chestnut and hickory plantings to make for an easier harvest for a nut nursery in Minnesota
Each of these examples is unique and different from the others, yet they all share common goals, components, and philosophies. The systems may take several years to establish, but many farmers promote the benefits of this type of production in the longer-term view. These benefits include; better support of animal health, more yields off the same acreage, reduced inputs to deal with pests and keep fields mowed, and healthier soil.
There is a big benefit that is no often the first reason for farming in Silvopasture but one that will continue to prove critical; climate change. Research shows mixed systems such as silvopasture sequesters significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere better than forests or grasslands alone – a huge part of the potential solution to global warming. Perhaps even more compelling is the positive aspect of silvopasture to buffer against the unpredictable nature of change; increased rainfall, longer droughts, and more intense storm events.