Silvopasture is an integrated system that combines trees, forage and livestock, and intensively manages each of those elements so the system as a whole makes money and preserves natural resources. It has been estimated that silvopasture practices, including alley cropping, were practiced in earnest on only about 770 acres in the U.S. in 2009.
I would guess that it was being practiced on much more land than reported, but without any management. By 2011, the managed practice had reached about 5,200 acres in 26 states and Puerto Rico. At that time, Alabama had the greatest number of applications and Oregon had the highest acreage of silvopasture. The 2012 U.S. Census in Agriculture found that alley cropping or silvopasture practices were being applied on 2,725 farms nationwide.
Diane Mayerfeld, University of Wisconsin Extension Sustainable Agriculture coordinator, has been studying factors that go into adoption of silvopasture practices in her state. "We have a lot of grazing farms, and our state naturally grows a lot of trees," Mayerfeld says. "I decided to start my research by asking farmers, foresters and agricultural advisers if they were doing any management that integrated livestock with trees and what they thought about the idea."
She conducted focus group and one-on-one interviews with farmers and forestry professionals, and compiled information from producers at workshops and other management-related sessions. While talking with a relatively small number of producers and foresters, Mayerfeld was able to get a sense of openness to silvopasture adoption.
"Most of the farmers I have talked to actually like the idea of silvopasture," she says. "Farmers and agricultural professionals talked about the value of shade in hot weather. They also talked about how livestock could help keep brush down in the woods." Several farmers also mentioned how silvopasture could generate income from land that otherwise does not provide economic returns.
"But at the same time, they were very aware of the common criticisms of woodlands grazing, and they emphasized how integrating livestock and trees takes careful management. Most think silvopasture is a good idea, but they also want to see better research on how to do it well in their area."
According to Mayerfeld, in Wisconsin, about 30% of the acreage in pasture is wooded. "Farmers graze their woodlands to provide shade and shelter for their livestock, to increase the total amount of land available for grazing without cutting down the trees, and to reduce their property taxes," she says. "But neither foresters nor agricultural advisers offer advice on how to manage that wooded pasture, other than the standard recommendations to just stop doing it altogether."
Foresters and farmers wanted to see silvopasture demonstrations and research in their region, Mayerfeld says. "They especially wanted to see economic information for silvopasture," she adds. "Both groups agreed that silvopasture is not right for every site, because a lot of forested areas are not suited for grazing, and open pasture will continue to provide most of the forage for our grazing animals," she explains. "Silvopasture is an addition to those two land uses, not a replacement for either."
You can learn more about Mayerfeld's silvopasture studies by contacting her at [email protected].