Woodland conversion to silvopasture requires planning

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Creating silvopasture is not a matter of fencing in the woods and letting the animals forage. Farmers must plan to create a successful silvopasture as indicated by “Converting Woodland to Silvopasture,” a recent webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust and presented by Steve Gabriel, owner of Wellspring Forest Farm.

“In my experience, there are a lot of directions and possibility that are contact and site specific, but a lot to share overall,” Gabriel said regarding the creation of silvopasture.

He views silvopasture as “tree fodder” that builds resilience and carbon on his farm. He first began silvopasture use in 2016 as his region of New York experienced a drought. What he discovered is that trees can provide a means for feeding animals.

Gabriel also views maintaining forests on farmed land as a means of creating a healthier environment. When he first purchased his farm, the soil was eroded, the wildlife habitat was low and the tilled soil was compacted.

“We want to leave a forest in our footsteps, healthy soil and water doing good things for the landscapes,” Gabriel said.

His farm produces mushrooms, maple syrup, pastured lamb, elderberry extract and educational programing. He also offers Airbnb rental.

“Agroforestry and silvopasture are relatively new words for ancient ways of stewarding lands,” Gabriel said. “Agroforestry showed up in the 1970s, but those land uses harken back to indigenous and old ways of farming.”

He defines silvopasture as “ecological restoration for livestock habitat.” He believes that silvopasture cause positive and negative effects in woodland ecosystems. But it should be both good for ecology and good for the animals.

“Think about your own major goals for silvopasture,” Gabriel said. “It has a lot of possibilities and ways one can focus.”

He sees silvopasture offering a livestock habitat, not just providing forage. Instead of focusing on only offering a TMR, farmers should provide a place for them to live.

“They have needs beyond fundamental nutritional baselines but also to raise young and sample from a diverse array of foods,” Gabriel said.

Silvopasture can include creating a good place to forage in an existing stand of trees or introducing trees to an existing pasture. Gabriel focused on the former for this presentation.

“It’s important to note that people need to think about the nuances of animal types and how they fit into the landscape,” he said, emphasizing that type and breed are important.

Some animals get a bad rap for damaging silvopastures, such as pigs. Gabriel said they only cause ecological damage when they lack food supply and are left in a pasture too long. Carelessly turning animals into a forest can cause damage to the forest and may not provide what the animals need.

Developing a silvopasture may include thinning the forest as nature thins it. “Our opportunity is to pay attention to the clues that who’s doing well, who’s in decline and how we can assist with the processes already happening,” Gabriel said of the trees. “Learn those patterns and indicators to suggest what management is most beneficial.”

Learning about the farm’s local ecology can help. Most forests are in the first couple of stages, where most of the slow growth trees are small. “We don’t see many in the third stage where the next generation is doing well and spawning new seedlings that are thriving,” Gabriel said. “We’re often in stand initiation, zero to 50 years, in the first two stages. Once they get a canopy and start edging each other out, they’re further along.”

Forests that require regeneration are typically all of the same generation. They may be different heights because of expression of types and access to nutrition; however, they’re all about the same age.

“It’s important to create conditions for regeneration,” Gabriel said. “In silvopasture, it’s excluding animals. Pigs may rough up the forest floor, but they won’t help with the seedlings.”

Pastures that need regeneration are not at the right stage for silvopasture. “If we’re at the edge of stage two and three, we might not want to get into silvopasture,” Gabriel said. “If we’re at the initiation stage and have low quality trees and brush growing, that may be a good place to start. Or if it’s at an older stage, it might be best left as a forest.”

Marginal, overgrown, neglected woods may include potentially noxious species that do not benefit birds or wildlife much. Gabriel said these are commonplace on farms as woody hedgerows.

When thinning, he removes intermediary and suppressed trees, taking the canopy down to 50% to 60% of what it was to make grazing worthwhile. He also looks at individual trees’ diameter, height, vigor, crown shape, diseases or defect and structure.

“How wide is the tree for the height and the age for the diameter?” he asked. The shape matters, as it can influence its access to sunlight.

“Sometimes if we see two trees that share a crown, it might be a good instance to thin one out,” Gabriel said.

Trees with disease or defect should be removed early. “If the tree is leaning half over because it had to grow into a gap, it might only last a few other decades but not 100 years,” Gabriel said. Consider what trees will be there for long-term forest health.

“Learn the tree species and their needs,” Gabriel said. “There are hundreds in your woods. Look at those that are dominant. Learn the forest management needs.”

While a clean forest free of stumps and logs on the forest floor may look nice, Gabriel advised leaving coarse woody debris, as these are habitats for insects that draw birds and rodents that plant trees and cultivate soil-enriching fungal networks. Even leaving some dead trees standing is important, as these often provide homes for owls and other animals. “We need these elements just as much as the trees,” Gabriel said.

Working with a forester may help, but Gabriel warned that it is vital to make clear the goal of turning the area into silvopasture.

“If they just talk about the amount of money you can make, it may not be the best fit,” he added. “You want to emphasize you don’t want to put animals where they would not offer benefit. Livestock can be a powerful force when restoring these overgrown, scrubby landscapes.”

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