Silvopasture is an agricultural practice that combines pastureland, trees, and grazing animals. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that provides the animals with a healthy diet, the land with a harvestable crop (like hay from the pasture or fruits from the trees), and the ecosystem with more diversity and sustainability. To create a silvopasture, forage crops can be added to a tree plantation or trees can be planted into a pasture. This technique has been around for a very long time, but has had some advancements in the last century from new understandings on biodiversity.
Silvopasture is a delicate process; to be successful every part needs to be watched closely. It is a system where trees, nitrogen-giving legumes, and rotational grazing are combined. Crop selection is important, typically pasture grass and legumes are planted to provide livestock with a nutritious diet. Trees are also introduced to provide protection for the animals against harsh weather and increase the biodiversity of the pasture. Having such a diverse ecosystem in the pasture also keeps the soil healthy, prevents soil erosion, and gives the animals a variety of plants to munch on.
The non-negotiable part of silvopasture is rotational grazing; this is by far the most important element. There is a plethora of livestock that can be introduced to the rotation; horses, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and even animals that are not typically pasture raised like bison or elk.(1) Each type of livestock has different grazing habits and therefore different effects on their environment. Rotational grazing cuts back weeds or dominant/invasive plants, which allows a variety of other species to flourish. This creates a more biodiverse environment that’s healthier for the soil. Animal manure also makes for a great fertilizer in proper amounts. The timed rotations of grazing animals are essential to keeping the practice beneficial, as this allows time for regrowth after being grazed and stops pastures from becoming overgrazed to the point of damaging the plants.
Alongside healthier livestock and pastures, silvopasture also has some effects on mitigating climate change. Carbon sequestration is a part of the carbon cycle where atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) becomes stored in the soil. Forest areas provide a larger amount of carbon sequestration simply because there are more plants in the area allowing photosynthesis to take larger volumes of carbon from the air.(2) The carbon taken from the atmosphere gets stored in the roots of the plant, and over time the roots will break down to become nitrogen-rich organic material stored within the soil.
Pastures that contain strewn or crisscrossed trees contain five to ten times more carbon in the soil than open pasture applications. It is predicted that 26.58–42.31 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered between 2020 and 2050.(3) This number is astronomical! In fact, silvopasture comes in at the 11th most effective way to reduce carbon emissions on Project Drawdown’s table of solutions.
Silvopasture is just one example of how the modern-day farmer has adapted to reach sustainability goals while still yielding great economic results. Supporting farmers and businesses who adopt strategies that help the climate is crucial, because as we work towards restoring our environment everyone has a role to play.
2. Cornell—Six Key Principles for a Successful Silvopasture, 2018.
3. Project Drawdown—Silvopasture