North Branch Farm: Innovative growing

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAby Tamara Scully
It is something to be known for growing the largest rutabaga in the Adirondacks. Putting that impressive anecdote aside, and Joseph Orefice, owner of North Branch Farm, still has accomplished quite a lot in his first three years of owning the farm. Orefice, who purchased the farm at 24 years old, is actively working to raise livestock, grow vegetables, and manage the forests on his diverse farm.
North Branch Farm, in Saranac, NY, consists of 78 acres, with about 1/3 of that being actively farmed. A large part of the remainder is managed forest. Orefice is a forester by trade, and an assistant professor at Paul Smith’s College. Plus, he’s a student at the University of New Hampshire. Add farming — more specifically silvopasturing — to the list, as Orefice is active in this relatively new movement — at least in the United States. Silvopasturing combines forest and livestock management into a system of farming designed to enhance both, and to provide two crops — woodland and animal — to farmers making the most of their land.
Silvopasturing at North Branch Farm means combining beef cattle with orchard production and management, and producing meat and cider apples, in an intensively managed rotational grazing system. Silvopasture relies on shaded pastures to enhance livestock production, and promote forest health, as well as grow a forest crop. The crop can be timber, fruit or nuts, fiber or sap. The only requirement is that a forest crop and a livestock crop are grown on the same land, providing another source of income on forested land, and the benefit of shade for animals in a grazing system managed for forage production, Orefice said.
“Every pasture has shade in it, and all of my shade is from trees,” Orefice said.
Creating silvopasture
Orefice has created his silvopastures in several ways. In one area of overgrown wild apple trees, filled with shrub and brush, Orefice allowed the beef cattle — White-faced Hereford and Scottish Highlands — to go in and scratch the brush, thus making it possible for him to enter and select the best trees for cider apples. Then, the unwanted trees were killed, resulting in nicely spaced orchard trees, with forage below. Orefice then began the process of restorative pruning. The opened canopy allowed grass seeds to germinate.
Pruning keeps the branches — and the fruit — at least five feet off the ground, so the cows don’t pull the branches down, damaging the trees. The cows are rotated out of the pastures when the forage height reaches two or three inches. Paddocks are various sizes, so “it’s really a matter of how long you leave them in there,” he said.
“The concept of trees in pasture can work in a lot of ways,” Orefice said. “It’s really site-specific.”
Mature forests of cherry, maple, and ash have also been converted to silvopature via selective thinning. The canopy density has to be reduced enough to allow grass seeds to sprout. Thinning the trees through active forest management, selecting for the forest crop or crops desired, while allowing enough light for forage establishment in the understory, is key.
“The easiest way to grow wood is on trees you already have,” he said.
Open pastures can also be converted to silvopastures by planting a tree crop. Tree seedlings need to be protected from the animals, who could push them over, or browse them. Orefice trains his herd to a polywire electric fence, then wraps strings of non-electrified polywire around and through the seedlings. While this won’t work long-term, it does work for the short amount of grazing time the animals are in the establishing silvopastures, he said.
Orefice has all three systems at work on his farm. But no matter how the silvopasture is obtained, it is not the same as simple woodland grazing.
“Silvopasture should be green underneath, and you shouldn’t be able to see roots,” Orefice said. The exception would be in an area of dense conifers, which can function as a living outdoor barn in silvopasture systems. This is a planned area for livestock shelter, he emphasized.
Studying the effects
Orefices’s farm is growing more than food crops. Orefice is researching the effects of silvopasturing, via a SARE (Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education) grant. 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.
For the study, Orefice will divide a woodland plot into three even sections. He will clear the forest for open pasture on 1/3 of the land, will thin around mature trees, selecting for the best ones and reduce canopy density in another, and will then do the same in the last sample, but will add in a rotational grazing system, allowing his cattle to actively graze this silvopasture.
In this manner, he will compare open pasture and silvopasture, as well as compare tree growth with and without the cows present in the system. This, he hopes, will help to answer concerns about the effect of livestock grazing on forest growth in a silvopasture system, as well as the effect of forest canopy on forage production. The study is officially a two-year research grant, however Orefice hopes that it will continue long-term. The research is also a part of his PhD requirements.
While Orefice is conducting his research, he still has crops to market. Orefice sells his vegetables via farmers markets, and has dabbled with CSAs. Orefice also grows fig trees. Currently, he is building his herd and not focusing on selling meat. One complication to establishing a retail meat trade is the lack of a USDA facility, with the nearest being over 75 miles away, he said.
His advice to anyone interested in establishing silvopasture? Already be competent at intensive rotational grazing, and seek the help of a professional forester if you are not familiar with managing woodland for crops. And start small, incorporating livestock into a forest setting within one year after establishing the proper density. If not, unwanted growth will take over the understory. The most important requirement for successful silvopasturing may be a passion for both forestry and livestock management, and a willingness to learn how to optimize both systems, without doing any harm to either.”

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