Will Agroforestry Work for You?
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By Mel Dickinson – Silvopasture, also known as agroforestry, is a farming method that includes the use of timber, livestock, and forage together in the same section of land. It is used to expand the use of unconventional farm land and diversify income. In a silvopasture system, the goal is to increase the land’s revenue by harvesting timber, raising livestock to sell as breeding stock, meat, and/or eggs, as well as, growing forage for grazing livestock and possibly baling it to feed over the winter. In a thriving silvopasture, both trees and animals benefit. The forest provides grazing, shade, and shelter for animals while the livestock provides nutrients to the trees and improves soil health through their manure while rotationally grazing the land.
To start a silvopasture, you can either begin with a mature wooded area or plant new trees in an open pasture. When developing a new silvopasture, there are many options of trees to plant. Pine, nut, fruit, hardwood trees, or a combination of trees are all possibilities depending on where you live, the quality of the soil, what kind of livestock will be rotating through the area, and how much time you are looking to wait before harvesting trees. There are many resources available for those interested in adding a new silvopasture to their farm or homestead.
Those starting with an existing forested area, like us, have a very different starting experience. In mature wooded areas that have not been managed, there are many preliminary steps that must be completed to create a thriving silvopasture system. A forested area that hasn’t been cared for in years or even decades is likely to be overcrowded, have downed trees, excessive underbrush, and invasive plants overtaking the woods.
In this type of mature woods, the underbrush needs to be thinned to allow for a working area and a healthy forest. Downed trees need to be cleared to allow for working areas. Trees need to be thinned to open up the canopy to allow sunlight through to grow forage and provide adequate space for existing trees to thrive. The area has to be seeded with appropriate forage. There also must be a fencing plan. While it is a huge undertaking, don’t get discouraged. The good news is your livestock can help with some of the work! Cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, guinea fowl, ducks, and geese can all assist in developing and maintaining a flourishing silvopasture.
It is important to note, before you allow livestock into the woods (or any new area of land) make sure you do not have any plants that are toxic to your animals. Your local extension office and veterinarian can help you determine which plants to look for in your specific area. Once you have confirmed the area is safe for your livestock, you then have to decide what kind of fencing you will use. There are various types of permanent and temporary fencing to choose from. Each homesteader and farmer should research these options and decide which type of fencing is best for their unique situation. We have cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, and guinea fowl on our farm. We like to use a permanent perimeter fence with a line of hotwire along the top and then use temporary single strand electric wires inside that area for rotational grazing purposes.
Depending on the status of your existing woods, you may need to clear the underbrush to allow for easier working conditions. You can do this by hand, using machinery, or livestock. We used a combination of using a forestry mulcher and livestock. We cleared an area to make a fence line, put up our perimeter fence, and let our cattle, goats, and pigs eat down the underbrush. Our herd cleaned up 10 acres in a matter of weeks! In addition to all the foliage, we also gave them hay to eat as well. They did eat the hay, but at a much slower rate than normal. Once they cleared the forest, we brought the cattle and goats back down to our pasture and rotated them through the woods one more time during the season. The pigs remained in the woods where they were finished on acorns and hickories and continued to till the land.
Our next steps are to clean up all the downed trees and harvest timber over the winter. Selectively cutting trees will not only open up the canopy to allow sunlight through to grow grass, but it will also decrease overcrowding allowing the remaining trees to flourish. In spring, we will seed the area with a mixture of forest and pasture grasses. We won’t be done cleaning up the woods by then, but our goal is to get grass starting to grow for summer forage and to help prevent erosion.
If you don’t have larger livestock on your farm or homestead, don’t count out silvopasture as farming method that could work for you! Free range chickens and guinea fowl are great workers for your woods. They may not be able to do the heavy clearing like the cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs, but fowl and poultry definitely put in the work on the forest floor! They help with pest control (free range guinea fowl are exceptional at this) and tilling up the land. Meat chickens and egg layers are both acceptable for silvopasture, but egg layers from a strong forager lineage have the upper hand when it comes to helping out in the woods.
Some homesteaders like to use the woods as their primary source of food for their flock while adding daily scraps to make sure they have enough food. Only on days when scraps are low do they supplement with commercial feed. If using this method, layers are recommended due to the larger feed requirements of meat birds for quicker growth.
If you plan to provide feed for your flock and use the forest as supplement, either meat birds or egg layers can be used, but better foragers will be more helpful for a silvopasture. While chickens may not be as heavy as their larger livestock friends, it is still necessary to rotate them as with any other livestock. If you have larger animals, poultry and fowl are always good choice to follow the rest of the livestock rotation to help break up manure as well as eating larvae and other pests to increase decomposition and cut down on flies.
While poultry and fowl are a great addition to a silvopasture, it is important to mention it does not come without risks. The forest is a natural habitat for many predators. Taking precautions to protect your flock is a must. We prefer to keep our chickens as close to the larger herd as possible, make frequent checks around the area throughout the day, and always have secure overnight sleeping quarters.
Starting a silvopasture system may feel overwhelming, but with a plan and hard work it can become a reality. A successful silvopasture not only serves as multiple facets of income for farmers and homesteaders, it also helps improve the land and health of livestock.