Managing land and livestock
By Tamara Scully

This photo shows the before (on right) and after (on left) results of silvopasture creation from a pasture overgrown with wild apple trees. After the trees are thinned, the remaining trees will be pruned.
Photos courtesy of Joseph Orefice unless otherwise noted.

Silvopasturing is gaining a positive reputation in the Northeast. Although it's not a new concept, it is re-emerging as a highly acceptable and eco-friendly practice after decades of being frowned upon by conservationists and foresters concerned about potentially negative impacts on forest ecosystems.

Ironically, the current silvopasturing movement in the Northeast is being led by some foresters whose vision of intensively managed grazing in woodland environments incorporates invasive species control, healthy forest crops, nutrient-laden forages for livestock, and a double crop - forest products and livestock - for farmers struggling with high land costs.

Brett Chedzoy, forest crops specialist with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, is one of those leading the way. Chedzoy grazes livestock on his family's Angus Glen Farms in Watkins Glen, N.Y., where they employ silvopasturing techniques. The farm raises 100 percent grass-fed Black Angus cattle and is Animal Welfare Approved. About one-third of the farm's acreage is actively managed silvopastures. The farm outwinters the cattle, using sheltered, wooded areas during adverse weather, and providing hay during the winter months when forage is not readily available.

The first step of silvopasture creation in an overgrown field: allowing cattle to eat and scratch down some of the brush. The next step will be to remove all undesirable stems.

Not woodland grazing

According to Chedzoy, silvopasture systems can be created when there is open pasture, which can be planted to create a wooded environment. This provides the benefit of shade for the livestock without the negative effects of manure buildup and trampled pasture seen when there's a lone tree in an open pasture. Silvopasture can also be approached by incorporating woodland into a grazing system, thinning the canopy to allow forage growth and grazing acreage.

However, simply turning livestock out into the forest to graze is not silvopasturing. While this technique may provide adequate forage and help to clear unwanted growth, it does not meet the definition of silvopasturing. Silvopasturing incorporates highly managed woodland grazing with the production of a woodland crop - such as timber, nuts, fruits, fibers or sap - and the active management of available forage.

Chedzoy has been leading a variety of day courses throughout the area, designed to introduce livestock and forestry producers to the benefits of silvopasturing. The courses demonstrate the variety of ways in which silvopasturing can be utilized and focus on the establishment of high-quality forage in silvopastures.

"Last August, we piloted the 'day courses' in eastern New York and New Hampshire, hoping to expand those trainings this year," Chedzoy said. Although the grant he anticipated did not materialize, several training courses will be held this summer as well. The schedule is available at www.silvopasture.ning.com.

One of the recent pasture walks led by Chedzoy was held on a dairy farm in Groton, N.Y. The objective on this farm was to add shaded grazing areas to a pasture-based, rotationally grazed dairy, with the intention of increasing the standard daily gain of the grazing heifers. Farmer Fay Benson, a member of Cornell University's small dairy support team, had previously conducted a study demonstrating that raising replacement heifers on pasture, rather than confined in a barn, had no detrimental effects. Data collected during that study also indicated that on very hot days (above 90 degrees) the movement of the animals decreased.

Chedzoy noted that previous studies from other sources have indicated that the dry matter intake of heifers increases with physical activity. Milk production, fertility and weight gain have also been shown to increase when shaded pastures are provided. Benson, therefore, was interested in incorporating shade paddocks into his rotational grazing protocol.

"The key is the balance between shade and sun," Benson said. Based on Chedzoy's recommendations, Benson is decreasing the basal area of some of his wooded land, which will allow existing seed banks to germinate and, with some luck, provide adequate forage, although the land can also be seeded with applicable forages if there is a need. The target basal area (the surface area of all tree stems per acre at 4.5 feet above ground level) is 60 square feet per acre.

Benson will selectively thin the woodland to the necessary basal area, managing the woodland crop as well as the forage crop and the needs of the livestock. He will build two 3-acre shade paddocks and rotate the heifers through during periods of high heat. Benson will use timers to open the gates to these paddocks at noon, giving the heifers the opportunity to seek the shaded paddocks when most needed.

Joseph Orefice stands on the line between an open pasture (on left) and silvopasture (on right). Both sites were harvested in July 2012 and seeded with grasses and white clover in August 2012. Whole trees were removed during harvesting. This photo was taken May 28, 2013.

"I will develop a number of paddocks [that will] have both grass and shade," Benson said. "These shade paddocks will be used only for the afternoon of the hot days. The rest of the time, the animals will be in pastures with no shade."

According to Chedzoy, once the shade pasture is created, the animals must be introduced as soon as possible.

"Brett said the key to starting is to get the animals in quickly, so that brambles and other weed trees don't take up the new sunlight," Benson said.

Quantifying silvopasture

Joseph Orefice is leading the way in silvopasturing at his North Branch Farm in the Adirondack Mountains of Saranac, N.Y. He is a forester, farmer and assistant professor at Paul Smith's College. Orefice has 78 acres; some are managed woodlots, and about one-third are actively farmed. He raises Scottish Highland beef cattle and white-faced Herefords in a rotationally grazed intensive pasture system.

"Every pasture has shade in it, and all of my shade is from trees," Orefice noted.

There are several different silvopasture areas on the farm. Each is unique, and they represent the various ways in which silvopasture can be incorporated. In addition, Orefice has obtained a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant that will help to quantify any environmental and economic variables that occur when silvopasturing is incorporated in a northern hardwood forest in comparison with treating the stand as a managed forest or converting it to pasture.

In the study system, Orefice will take a mature forest stand of cherry, maple and white ash and divide it into three study areas. One-third of the land will be cleared entirely for open pasture, grass will be planted, and the cattle will be grazed. Another third will be thinned appropriately for a woodland management system, retaining the best trees for timber production. The final third will be thinned to accommodate silvopasture grazing, planted with a variety of forage grasses and white clover, and then grazed.

The study will allow a quantifiable comparison between the three management techniques. Orefice's objectives are to better understand the correlation between tree growth, grazing pressure and forest production, measuring the environmental impacts as well as the costs of establishing and maintaining the system. Soil properties, forage production and timber properties will all be measured.

While the SARE grant encompasses a two-year period, he said, "Ideally, it will be long-term." He adds that it is currently the only formal study on silvopasture in the Northeast.

Black Angus cattle graze on silvopasture at the Chedzoys' Angus Glen Farms, LLC, in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Photo courtesy of Brett Chedzoy.

Cultivating silvopasture

Aside from the land being studied in the SARE grant project, Orefice has other silvopastures established on the farm.

In one section, the land was overgrown with goldenrod and shrubs, with areas of wild apple, cherry and invasive buckthorn trees. Orefice allowed the cattle to graze there the first season, during which they primarily opened up the brush, allowing him access.

Orefice then went through and selected the trees he wanted to save. In this case, he was looking to utilize the apple trees to make cider. While these are mature wild trees rather than named cultivars, they can be selected for the best apples - either prolific production, best taste or both - for cider production. The other trees were removed, and the result is a managed woodlot of spaced wild apple trees.

The next season, Orefice pruned the trees, regulating the amount of tree canopy and therefore sunlight, managing both for forage and apple production. The trees are pruned so the lower branches are 5 feet off the ground to prevent animal browse. Within a year, grass seed already in the understory will germinate, as the sunlight now penetrates through to the ground sufficiently.

"I don't have 1 acre that is like any other acre," Orefice said. The paddocks developed here are not uniform in size and aren't grazed on a strict schedule, but grazing is controlled to keep the forage height at 2 or 3 inches.

"It's a matter of how long you leave them in there," he explained - you don't want the forage to be overgrazed, and you want to control understory growth.

Orefice planted on another area of the farm that was relatively open land to create silvopasture. The pasture was loaded with rocks, and when he encountered a rock too big to move, he planted a fruit tree nearby.

"Fortunately, my rocks are really well-distributed," Orefice said, which enabled him to create a silvopasture environment with appropriately spaced trees. "You can take forest and bring it back to pasture, or you can plant trees. You need systems that work for your herd and for your management systems as well."

After planting the trees, the seedlings are protected from the cows with the use of a nonelectrified poly wire fence. Orefice's cows are trained on electric poly wire fencing, so when he wraps poly wire around the seedlings, even looping it through the leaves, they leave it alone. This wouldn't work if the cows were left in the pasture long-term, but on a limited rotational grazing system, it does the trick. Once the trees are robust enough not to be pushed over by the cows, they can survive on their own, he said.

Getting started

"My pasture system involves both silvopastures and open pastures. Both have ample grass to support cattle, and I have attempted to make shade available for my cattle in every paddock. In many cases, this is achieved using small 0.5-acre silvopastures," Orefice said.

The cattle are 100 percent grass-fed at North Branch Farm, with hay being fed in the winter. They are also outside in the winter, with outdoor living barns. Conifers provide protection from the wind and mimic deeryards, where deer naturally shelter under dense conifers. While silvopasture stands of pine and balsam fir may be natural or planted, they are managed to offer the needed protection.

Orefice's advice to any livestock producer looking to incorporate silvopasture on the farm is to have a thorough knowledge of rotational grazing practices. He advocates starting small and getting livestock into the silvopasture within a year of its creation, or unwanted growth will occur.

"If you are unfamiliar with managing trees, you should work with a forester," Orefice said. Silvopasturing is more complex than establishing trees within a field, and is more than woodland grazing, he added.

Woodland grazing is currently practiced on about 20 percent of all pastureland in the Northeast, according to recent USDA census data. This indicates that farmers in the Northeast already have woodlands incorporated on the farm, and that managing these woodlands for both grazing and for a forest crop has the potential to be a lucrative double-cropping system. However, silvopasture isn't simply logging a few trees and letting the animals eat the understory.

"Silvopasture should be green underneath, and you shouldn't be able to see roots," Orefice said.

Meeting the germination requirements of the targeted forage species is a key to creating quality silvopasture, according to Chedzoy. This is done via canopy management, maintaining soil pH, and by managing disturbances caused by grazing, particularly during early, fragile growth stages. The key to silvopasturing is providing quality forage for livestock while managing the woodland for a forest crop in an integrated system that is beneficial to both the forest and livestock production.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.