Still, there’s evidence of movement in that direction in various locales. In Pennsylvania, Austin Unruh started Crow and Berry Land Management to help Mid-Atlantic farmers install riparian buffers, strips of vegetation planted alongside waterways. The buffers were in demand in the region because of a longstanding effort by states and the federal government, which made significant grant funds available, to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Riparian buffers can prevent nutrients, pesticides and sediment from running off fields and entering waterways, where they eventually make their way to the Bay, disrupting ecosystems and wildlife.
“Farmers, especially grazers who are a little bit more willing to think outside the box, they’re looking at the whole farm ecosystem. And some of them are interested in having trees in their pastures for shade,” Unruh said. A few asked him about silvopasture installations, and so he expanded his operation to provide them. He’s done six so far, the largest of which was at Fiddle Creek Dairy in Quarry, Pennsylvania, and has four more coming up. “Demand is small but growing, and there’s real reason for the demand to grow,” he said.
Barriers to Adopting Silvopasture
Many farmers who decide to try silvopasture start with grassy grazing pastures and decide to plant trees. That upfront cost can be significant. Unruh estimates his system costs a farmer about $15 a tree, and he usually plants about 50 stems per acre. Based on those calculations, a farmer with 25 acres would have to spend $18,750. And that’s a small farm.
“Why isn’t every farmer doing this? Because most farmers are just a hair away from going out of business as it is, so they’re not going to spend all their money on something that they haven’t proven works,” Ohlinger said. “And they’re not going to spend all their money on something that’s not going to bring them a return for maybe 10 years, right?”
Returns on investment are a debated, and complicated issue. The simplest benefit for farmers is that especially in areas that have long, hot summers, livestock are healthier and more comfortable because they have access to shade. In the winter, trees also provide protection from wind. “It’s just kind of, you know, a great big natural barn,” Grace said. But it might take five years before trees are big enough to provide that kind of protection.
It’s also possible to supplement animals’ diets based on the trees planted, although that can take even longer to pay off. Unruh, for example, plants Honey Locusts in the Mid-Atlantic because the trees fix nitrogen in the soil, which could produce healthier forage (the mix of grasses and other plants the livestock eat) and they have a “dappled canopy” that won’t block out too much sun. The trees also drop nutrient- and calorie-dense pods in the fall that animals will eat as they graze. “There could be thousands of pounds per acre depending on the genetics you have and how many trees you have, so that could be a really significant calorie boost for the herd going into the winter,” he said.
Ohlinger plants fruit trees — apple, peach and sour cherry — in one pasture, and the animals also eat the fruit that falls to the ground. Of course, he could make more money if the fruit that stayed on the tree could then be harvested and sold to customers. But the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law passed in 2011 to prevent foodborne illness that has been phased in gradually since, prohibits the sale of fresh produce grown in the same fields as grazing animals.
There is also potential, in some regions, around harvesting some trees for timber, but markets are not always present and the ecological impact has to be balanced.
One way to reduce upfront costs is to establish a silvopasture operation in an area that’s already forested, rather than adding trees to pastures. In the Midwest, that approach is common because there are a lot of what Grace jokingly refers to as “crappy forests,” generally areas that were cleared for cropland and then regrew without proper management.
“These are not the healthiest forests that we could have. Not only is the biodiversity and habitat not that great, but they’re kind of turning it into a little bit of a monoculture by neglect,” he explained. “So to try to do some management of these forests and leave some of the bigger and healthier trees or the trees that have more wildlife or biodiversity benefits and take out the mid-story layer, which often comes back as some type of invasive shrub…If you can do that and then get healthy forage underneath and keep livestock integrated, I think that in a lot of cases, that’s going to be better for the carbon balance in the long run.”
In Wisconsin, this approach also comes with a tax benefit for farmers, Grace said, since forested land is taxed at a much higher rate than agricultural land. Turn that forest into a farm, and suddenly, your property taxes plummet.
The important thing, Grace said, is educating farmers about the difference between a carefully managed silvopasture system and just “turning your livestock loose in the woods,” which can cause a lot of damage to ecosystems.
It’s why organizations like the Savanna Institute are important, because resources and technical support on silvopasture are scarce. Ohlinger said he struggled to find information when he was starting out, and that agricultural extension agents often don’t know about planting wildflowers and native grasses, while the conservation groups don’t know anything about integrating livestock.
The field of installations is still developing, too. At Crow and Berry, Unruh has been working on designing the perfect “tree shelter” to be able to plant young trees in active pastures without animals destroying them before the trees have grown big and strong enough to protect themselves. He’s tested many designs and has landed on using a shelter that’s six-feet high, is made of flexible fiberglass stakes, and is wrapped in barbed wire to keep the cattle from rubbing up against it and knocking it over. He’s currently working on collaborative research to test the most effective silvopasture establishment systems.