Silvopasture: A guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem

review by Joan Walker

I was very interested to read this book as I have practiced Silvopasture for many years and am planning my biggest forest cut yet to support the practice for my 65 Devon cattle herd in the middle of New England.

Steve Gabriel, author of Farming the Woods (with Ken Mudge), is an ecologist, educator, and a forest farmer who has lived most of his life in the Finger Lakes region of New York and I have heard him speak at a few events, always interesting, always informative. Thus, I was looking forward to the book and his insight.

Steve breaks the book down into a logical format that brings clarity to farmers new to the practice but also with many well thought out insights for more seasoned practitioners of Silvopasture.

The first chapter defines silvopasture, especially delving into the modern practice of keeping crop and pasture lands separate from forests. Gabriel discusses in depth the benefits of managing these lands in a more symbiotic way, utilizing the compound effect of making the most of each area as part of a whole and working WITH each other part of the farm. The farm becomes, as Jerry Brunetti put it, an ecosystem on its own with no one part not dependant on the others.

The second chapter explores more of the history of silvopasture and tells of how sustainable silvopasture systems were the way things were done for hundreds of years but went out of use as farming, like life, became more compartmentalized (and short-sighted). He gives great examples of pig farms and other stories to highlight techniques mostly lost in America but still widely practiced in other parts of the world.

The third chapter moves into practice specifics and delves into fencing, animals and other basic concepts and issues. Although the information is basic enough for the beginner to start to plan his silvopasture endeavour, his specifics on mapping and planning (think wind, water, light, soil type, fodder and tree species, etc.) are in-depth enough to afford even someone who has used silvopasture techniques before lots to add to their plans and many new ideas.

The next two chapters get into specifics on bringing animals into the woodlands or bringing trees into pastures and goes into great depth on the animals, the land and the systems needed that are unique to silvopasture – how DOES one address fencing in the woods and training animals to eat new foodstuffs? Steve did a great job in making you think about all the details you should be considering in your plans.

The last chapter delves deeper into planning to increase the odds of success.

Steve mentions working with what you have and starting with what you have – it’s expensive to plan an enormous project in time and money and Steve brings us along on how to address each step as a part of a process that can be planned and executed as the farmer has time and money available – it was nice to not feel one had to take out a second mortgage or stop doing their routine duties to jump into a big project – how to take bites of each course was discussed in depth and was very helpful.

I really enjoyed the book – I learned and was entertained – a wonderful yet rare occurrence. It was particularly encouraging to read how planting trees or reclaiming hedgerows or scrub area or thinning woods can improve the health of the area used, the animals involved and the farm as a whole. Sustainable ecosystems are, thankfully, becoming appreciated again – it was how it WAS long ago and that wisdom was lost – and silvopasture practices – and this book in particular – will be a welcome addition to any farmer’s (big or small) bookshelf as a thought-provoking guide to a long-lost practice of the past.