Brett Chedzoy, Cornell University senior resource educator in agriculture and natural resources, is a fan of silvopasture systems for livestock. At the annual meeting of the Grassfed Exchange, Chedzoy talked about his introduction to silvopasture and how the practice can benefit livestock farmers.

“When I got out of grad school in 1992, I had the good fortune to wind up in South America with … the Peace Corps,” said Chedzoy. “I came from a timber harvest and production background and was sent there to train the gauchos to be loggers. I was highly unsuccessful in that because gauchos quickly realized logging is hard work.”

The Argentinian ranchers had been planting trees on large rangelands for about 20 years before he showed up to teach them how to use mature forest plantations as an income source. Today, instead of importing products, the region is now an exporter of forestry products.

As he transitioned back to New York and his home farm, Chedzoy found it was a paradigm shift to think differently about “keeping animals out of the woods.”

“In the Northeast, you don’t put animals in the woods,” he said. “That was a good 60 or 70 years ago when family dairy and livestock farms were essentially treating woodlots as sacrifice paddocks and causing considerable damage to high-value hardwood forest to continue chronic impacts and stresses to those trees.”

Today, management options include rotational grazing and portable fencing, and farmers have a far better understanding of soil health principles. “We know how we can put animals back in areas where trees grow in a symbiotic and sustainable fashion,” said Chedzoy, “not just put the cows in there until the trees die then change the area to something different.”

Chedzoy categorizes the practice into three main categories: plantation silvopasture, which is purposely planted; woodlot silvopasture, which is what grows naturally; and orchard silvopasture, which Chedzoy said is becoming more popular.

What makes silvopasturing different from other grazing methods? Chedzoy said it involves intensive rotational grazing and emphasizes the importance of having good rotational grazing skills.

“We can’t just hook up a brush-hog and fix our laziness,” said Chedzoy. “We need to allow areas to fully rest and recover between grazings. That’s how we eliminate a lot of the issues that gave woodland grazing a bad rap in the past when animals were in there continuously, damaging soils and trees.”

Grazing livestock are the workhorses in a silvopasture system, and they are also the tools to prevent a wooded area from turning to brambles, brush and noxious plants. Chedzoy encourages those interested in silvopasturing to start small and to pay attention during development because passive grazing management of silvopasture doesn’t work well.

For graziers who have already invested in intensive grazing and know how to move animals appropriately, silvopasture can still be challenging because trees, stumps and bushes are now in the way of moving fence lines.

“Even if you get high [animal] density per acre, you don’t get the uniform trampling effect,” said Chedzoy. “That doesn’t mean we should abandon high-density grazing in opportune moments, but we’ve shifted focus and try to do a lot more very high density grazing in winter. We’re grazing about eight months then we bale graze the other four months. We have to shift to bale grazing when the soils are either dry enough, which is rare in winter, or frozen, which is more common in winter, to feed as many bales on patches of soft brush as we can.”

In the 30-foot impact zone of 100 cows around a round bale, there’s about 1.5 million lbs. of sustained density for several hours as animals eat. The cows also fertilize the area, and the hay contains viable seed. Brushy growth such as multiflora rose and wild blackberry canes are knocked back and don’t continue to expand and overwhelm the site.

In a good system, cows can be moved as needed – they can go into silvopasture when it makes sense to put them there. The system is about promoting synergistic grazing resources, with forages, trees and animals all working together. However, year-round management is essential because bored, restless or hungry animals can cause serious damage to trees of any sizes. In addition, trees must be managed to allow sunlight to come through the canopy to grow high quality forage.

“Silvopasturing is about reallocating sunlight from ‘up here’ in the upper canopy to close to the soil surface where you can grow productive and good quality forages,” said Chedzoy. “That works differently if we’re managing a woods just for timber where we’re creating growing space around the best trees. Silvopastures have to continue that all the way down to ground level, so if you have a dense understory of invasive brush or a lot of small diameter, suppressed trees, those other plants are intercepting sunlight.”

If the timber aspect isn’t managed correctly, harvested trees will have defects. “Standing trees might look nice, but when you get them out, you realize the trees that were losing out are full of defects and voids,” said Chedzoy. “All you’re doing by leaving those is growing a slightly bigger firewood or pulpwood quality tree – it isn’t going to magically be a high-value timber tree.”

Those who intend to grow good forage in a silvopasture system must be judicious about removing firewood-quality timber. “When you look up, you want to see about 50% blue sky and 50% tree canopy,” said Chedzoy. “That coincides with growing as many good trees per acre as the site will sustain while getting rid of the low-quality trees and not getting enough sunlight to the ground to grow forages.”

The list of positives for silvopasturing is long, including increased productivity of underutilized land, rehabilitation of degraded woodland, property tax abatement, forest regeneration, control of problem plants, animal comfort and welfare and enhanced wildlife habitat.

Other benefits include growing new crops on the same acreage, carbon sequestration, drought resilience and the creation of “living barns” in dense coniferous zones that can serve as livestock sheltering areas in winter.

Chedzoy said the only downside is a higher investment in grazing skills and money to initiate and maintain the practices. He recommends those interested in developing a silvopasture system work with Soil & Water Conservation Districts, state and Extension foresters and consulting foresters to establish a viable plan.

by Sally Colby