Silvopasture, a portmanteau of the Latin words “silva” (forest) and “pastura” (grazing), is a form of agroforestry.
This regenerative farming method benefits both the land and animals—think free organic matter (i.e., manure) for the soil and a cool, shady environment for livestock—not to mention the farmer, who may use the trees to supplement income from livestock and vice versa.
Silvopasture has been lauded for its carbon-capture potential, which could help reduce the impacts of climate change, but it certainly isn’t a perfect solution.
Key Principles of Silvopasture
Silvopastures can be established either by introducing trees into a pasture or introducing livestock to an existing woodland. Whichever the case, healthy and successful silvopastures should have these basic principles in common:
1. Trees Are Matched to Soil Type and Climate
If planting trees in a pasture, the trees should be suited to the environment. Native species are best because they thrive with as little effort and few resources as possible, plus they benefit native fauna such as pollinators. You also want species that provide valuable fodder for the animals—such as protein-rich black locust (rivaling the nutrition of alfalfa) and willow, whose tannins have been proven to ward off some sheep parasites
The trees should also be diverse, lending to a complex ecology that provides not just diversity in the animals’ diets but also wildlife habitat and some resistance to pests and diseases that would otherwise flourish in a monocrop environment.
2. Livestock Is Matched to Trees
Silvopasture is suitable for a vast array of livestock, from the standard—like cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and horses—to the unusual—such as caribou, bison, and emus. In any case, livestock should be matched to the environment, taking into account the forage, climate, and, importantly, the trees’ stage of life.
Cows, for example, are heavy and prone to trampling the roots of vulnerable juvenile trees. Their insatiable appetites and bulky statures are a recipe for disaster in orchards where they have access to low-hanging fruit. Sheep, goats, and pigs may not be as large, but they’re hungry for bark. Put these animals in a pasture with saplings and they will most definitely wreak havoc. All of this to say that farmers must do their research when pairing trees with animals and make sure the forest environment is ready for grazing to avoid doing more harm than good.
3. Focus Is Split Between Forest and Livestock
Silvopasture is not a one-sided system that favors agricultural outputs for farmers; rather, it’s a practice that melds animal husbandry with forest stewardship. In a silvopastoral system, outputs may suffer for the forest or livestock to thrive. The work involved here might include amending soil, managing weeds and taking other steps to protect trees, pruning, harvesting hay, and thinning the forest so that light can shine through the canopy and penetrate the forage. It’s much more work than rearing livestock in open pastures and often takes more time to reap the economic rewards.
4. Animals Graze on Rotation
Though not essential to a silvopastoral system, a rotational grazing approach is best for plant health and growth. The alternative, continuous grazing, in which livestock graze in a pasture for an extended period, can lead to soil degradation and overgrazing of the most nutritious species. Rotational grazing involves moving the animals to allow the forage to rest, recover, and grow. This method is mutually beneficial, as the animals in turn get more diversity in their diets and less exposure to parasites.
Ecological Benefits of Silvopasture
The silvopasture approach is often exalted—including by the USDA—because of its potential to mitigate climate change and offset the environmental strains of animal agriculture.
Here are just a few of the benefits:
Benefits to Livestock
Grazing livestock may reap the rewards of silvopasture, too.
Dietary diversity: With a rotational grazing approach, livestock has continuous access to nutritious and diverse food types.
Reduced risk of infection: Disease and parasites thrive in a monocrop environment. Moving livestock regularly halts the development and spread of outbreaks.
Reduced heat stress: The same cooling effect that benefits the land also helps reduce heat stress in the animals, which improves their performance and overall wellbeing.
Benefits to Farmers
Besides the benefits to their land and livestock, farmers could gain the following from adopting a silvopastoral system:
Income diversification: The main draw for farmers to adopt a silvopastoral system is perhaps the economic benefit of adding trees (or livestock, contrarily) as an income source.
Enhanced aesthetics: Pastures with trees simply look better than those without (which, as a bonus, could boost property value).
Challenges of Silvopasture
Silvopasture comes with some drawbacks for both farmers and the environment.
Time and energy
Reduced carbon-holding capacity