Agroforestry in the spotlight: New ways for old terrain

There’s an old saying that it is hard to see the forest for the trees, but some Minnesota farmers look to the trees to help increase agricultural productivity and address environmental issues, including water quality. They aren’t simply managing the trees; they are intentionally combining trees with forage and livestock systems.

Lifelong farmer Dan Caughey and his family raise beef cattle and dairy cows on more than 1600 acres (1000 owned and 600 rented) near Fort Ripley, Minnesota. They have been working with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) for years to improve conservation and productivity on their farm. However, “there are a number of challenges to achieving productivity on our farm,” says Dan. To learn how to overcome these challenges, Dan attends community and University of Minnesota (UMN Extension) educational programs to learn about increasing production in a sustainable manner, while protecting the environment.

Recently, researchers and extension educators from the UMN Extension were looking for farmers to partner in establishing on-farm silvopasture demonstration trials. Because Minnesota has more than 439,000 acres of unproductive and unmanaged wooded pasture, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, UMN Extension has secured funding to address the issue through outreach activities. Managing these grazed woodlands with best management practices will provide environmental and economic opportunities. Silvopasture is a best management practice that combines forestry and grazing principles. The result is the production of timber, forage, and livestock on the same acreage at the same time. It not only improves the appearance of the landowner’s property, it helps the livestock and environment too.

Dan agreed to establish a silvopasture demonstration trial on his farm. Because it was a new concept for him, he was curious as to what this practice had to offer. “On our farm, we have more than 100 acres of wooded pasture and we have fences around them. The beef cows run through the forest. During the summer, the beef cows graze what they can from it. I see that the forested pastures are not productive from an agricultural standpoint. So I am interested in how to make those acres more productive,” said Dan.

To assess the impacts of silvopasture economically and environmentally, researchers and extension educators of UMN set up a demonstration to compare the performance of forages and livestock grazing in open pasture and in unmanaged wooded pasture.

Management interventions to develop the silvopasture included timber stand improvement (TSI) by cutting down some trees to encourage forage growth. In the fall, the area was seeded with cool season (e.g., red clover, timothy) and native grasses and forbs (e.g., Virginia wild rye, fringe broom). Cool season grasses dominate Dan Caughey’s pasture. Fertilizer was also applied in the silvopasture area to correct soil fertility deficiency.

Dan is actively involved in every aspect of the project. As he walks through the paddocks, he observes a big difference in forage productivity and the cows’ health in the silvopasture system. “The most impressive part is that we have five acres of heavily wooded pasture right next to the five-acre silvopasture demonstration. The amount of forage in the silvopasture is much higher than that in the heavily wooded pasture,” said Dan. “Grasses in the silvopasture were lush, the cows were happy and were in their comfortable habitat and did not disturb the soil, unlike the heavily wooded pasture where the cows just ground up the soil with their hoofs allowing potential environmental setback,” Dan continued.

If shade is added to pastures, it can keep plants cooler and in prime growing condition later in the summer. Reducing heat stress also creates higher feed value, while the added shade helps reduce heat stress for livestock. Even in northern climates like Minnesota and Vermont heat stress is a common issue that producers deal with. “Silvopasture is a win-win situation because you can add value from the forage, from cutting trees, and from reducing soil compaction,” said Dan.

Demonstrating the theory and concept of silvopasture has heightened Dan’s interest. With the more than 100 acres of heavily wooded pasture that his family owns, there are many opportunities to increase silvopasture on his farm. So far he has seen that converting some wooded acres to silvopasture has improved their cow-calf operation. When the silvopasture system allows Dan to generate or wean more beef calves, there is economic benefit from the system and more saleable products from the farm.

Dan Caughey recently bought 72 additional wooded acres. He intends to harvest some of the timber from this land in winter 2017 for income and follow that by seeding in some grasses. He then plans to convert this wooded pasture into silvopasture that will become part of his rotational grazing plan.

“There are a lot of pastures in our area where cows are introduced and picked up after four months. I really believe in allowing the grass to grow back. Then I turn the cows back in to graze again, and then pull them out to let the grass grow back again to ensure viability of the plant species and help the soil to recover.” Dan is not only interested to learn more about improved pasture management, he is also interested in maintaining and taking care of the land to pass it on to his kids.

NOTE: This post originally appeared in Inside Agroforestry, a publication of the National Agroforestry Center.

For more info, check out UMN Extension’s agroforestry page.

Diomy’s work addresses agroforestry and renewable energy. He’s based in Brainerd.

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