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A Forest(er) Farmer’s Journey with Silvopasturing

Over the years, I’ve had many enjoyable opportunities to talk about silvopasturing – mostly in an “official” capacity as an Extension educator. But I’ve never had the chance to share much on how I came to be enamored with this “grazing in Nature’s image” agroforestry system that has become the core of our family’s farms.

The story begins with a young forester (me) who shipped off to Argentina with the Peace Corps in 1992. There I was tasked with sharing my knowledge of forestry and timber harvesting with local ranchers and gauchos who had spent the previous twenty years creating large forests from scratch via planting. The Argentines liked to quip that “God gave them great soils, climate and rainfall, but forgot to add the trees”, so they saw it as their mission to complete the work. They were very successful in their endeavors, and the next step was turning trees into cash.

Interestingly, at the time of my arrival the Province of Cordoba (central Argentina) was importing ~ 90% of the lumber it used from outside the region – most from neighboring countries like Chile and Brazil. Thirty years later, the same region is now self-sufficient and exports 90% of the timber products they grow. That in itself seems like a real success story, but what I gradually came to appreciate from these tree-covered ranching operations was how well the forestry and grazing complimented each other. It was an eye-opening evolution for an idealistic young forester who was taught since forestry school infancy that: “Thou shall not graze livestock in forests!”

silvopasture

“Woods silvopasture”. A commercial harvest in 2015 removed the overcrowded and poor-quality trees to reallocate sunlight to the ground level. Now, Angus Glen Farm grow forages instead of firewood in this silvopasture, plus a full stocking of vigorous, high-quality trees. Photo provided by Brett Chedzoy.

Near the end of my Peace Corps service, I married the love of my life – Maria – and we bought our own little piece of Paradise to ranch near her family’s farm. In hindsight, I wonder if this purchase wasn’t to console her parents that I wouldn’t take their daughter too far from home. But years later, I guess the truth was that I just love grazing and forests (and Maria) – and when I could mix them together, even better!

I don’t even remember the first time that I heard the word “silvopasturing”, but I gradually came to recognize this as something cool and special that made sense on every level. For the Argentines, it was more of a “why not?” vs. “why?” attitude to expand this natural fit of grazing and beneficial trees to have healthier landscapes, livestock and ranching operations. When we moved back to the family farm in New York in the early 2000s with a young family in tow, I found that on our end of the world the foresters, farmers and all the experts in between were still very much stuck on the “why?”. Fortunately, around the same time, there was a novel project at Cornell University’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest called “Goats in the Woods” that sought to look at the effectiveness and economics of using goats to control problematic plants in woodland settings. Although it wasn’t thought of as “silvopasturing”, the project served to show that grazing could be done in a positive way to promote healthier woodlands.

Soon after that project ended, there were two big new changes in my life: I had started working for Cornell Cooperative Extension in the same county where Goats in the Woods had taken place; and, we had started to resurrect the old family dairy farm with the goals of doing something profitable and enjoyable for our family. Since the very start of the new job, I found myself continually being asked about the Goats project and if I thought the same approach could work in other situations. I also started to take a hard look at our farm and realized that we had far more woods and brush than pasture. This was the moment where past experiences collided with the present, and I realized that it was time to start openly talking about silvopasturing.

At first, I wasn’t sure how my forester and farmer friends would react to the heresy of putting woods into pastures, or pasture into woods. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t find much resistance – but looking back I attribute that mostly to no one having much idea what I was talking about. One talk led to another, however, and before long we were hosting the Northeast Silvopasture Conference over a decade ago that drew 130 folks from a dozen states and provinces. Since then, there have been many more educational efforts around silvopasturing and numerous new faces sharing their experiences and expertise.

So back to the farm…
Initially, we simply wanted to raise some animals for fun with the kids and to put some home-raised meat in the freezer. After all, my family was at least half Argentine, and Argentines like their meat! Sheep, goats and beef cattle were in the early mix, along with some pigs, horses and even Simon the llama. As the number of sheep and goats grew, it was starting to look like a full-time job, so we shifted more to beef cattle to keep things simple(r).

Grazing in BrushThe small livestock liked to munch on the brush, but we just had too much of it for them to keep the jungle in check. The cattle liked to focus on grassy stuff, but would opportunistically browse on the woodies when available. Gradually, we learned how to increase herd density at key times in the grazing season to put a beat down on the brush. The winter bale grazing months proved golden to drop “bale bombs” (an expression that I’ve adopted from friend and silvopasture expert Joe Orefice) into patches of soft brush to smash, trample, fertilize and reseed – all with a labor force that will work for food. When needed, some judicious “mulching” with heavy-duty forest mowing machines would jump-start the process by knocking the woody plants down to size for the livestock to then take over.

This gradual clearing of invasive shrubs and beech brush thickets in the understory was just part of the process that helped create productive silvopasture in our farm woodlots and plantations. The other key step was to remove the many dozens of poorer trees per acre that were taking up space and sunlight with little potential for future returns. Much like weeding a garden, we reduced the competition around our best trees by harvesting the lower-quality and less vigorous ones around them – a forest management practice known as “thinning”.

“Bale bombs” before and after. These situations allow a
sustained grazing density of over one million pounds per acre.
Repeated periodically over time, the forages will gradually
replace the brush in these locations.

The last major thinning in our silvopasture took place in 2015 which netted us about $300 per acre in timber revenue – only about ten percent of the total timber value per acre, but closer to 40% of the total stocking of trees. By harvesting the firewood-quality trees, we were able to reallocate the sunlight to ground level where we could instead grow forages. More importantly, it allowed us to use the whole farm instead of just the half that wasn’t already covered by trees.

After nearly twenty years of efforts to establish, expand and improve silvopasture on our farm, we’re seeing gradual increases to our grazing capacity, healthier and more productive conditions in the wooded areas, and happy and comfortable animals – especially on hot, sunny days. What’s not to like about silvopasture?

I hope to share more in the future about the nitty-gritty of silvopasture, but there is already plenty of good information available. The www.silvopasture.ning.com forum has many archived webinars, articles and conversations. The “Guide to Silvopasturing in the Northeast” and other resources are available on Cornell’s www.forestconnect.info forestry extension site.

Brett Chedzoy is an extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County and Forest Manager of Cornell’s Arnot Forest.  Brett and his family own and operate Angus Glen Farms, LLC in Watkins Glen, NY – a 500-acre regenerative grazing operation, and Estancia Rincon Grande in the Sierra Mountains of central Argentina.