This post was initially included on Nexus Media and Ambrook Research
After milking his seven cows on a clear April morning, Tim Sauder looked over the meadow where he had just let the animals off to graze. Sauder’s fields flourished with a variety of plants, including chicory, alfalfa and clover, like many dairy farms. Additionally, they contained trees, which are typically absent from a farming setting. Numerous them.
At Fiddle Creek Dairy, a 55-acre family farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife breed cows to create yoghurt, cheese and beef, Sauder planted 3,500 trees between 2019 and 2021. The meadows are now dotted with young willow, hickory, poplar, pecan, and persimmon trees. On a cold spring morning, rows of honey and black locusts, bur and cow oaks, were just beginning to leaf out, creating shadows on the extensive grass below.
According to Sauder, planting trees has always been a high concern. Before he planted trees throughout his pastures, the farm was home to a small fruit orchard and riparian buffers, which are trees placed along a creek to prevent erosion and protect water quality. His enterprise has changed significantly as a result of the trees that his cows are now allowed to graze beneath.
The Sauders are essentially betting the farm on silvopasture, an old practise of cultivating grassland, trees and livestock on the same plot of ground (silva is Latin for forest). In a silvopasture system, farmers carefully manage one component to benefit the other. For example, they can use manure to fertilise trees or fallen fruit to feed the animals. This results in a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s an old idea that’s gaining popularity today. The Nature Conservancy and a number of partners received a $64 million grant from the USDA in 2015 to improve agroforestry, the general word for farming practises using trees, by providing financial and technical assistance to farmers looking to make the move. The Farm Bill for this year may recommend additional funding in addition to the expansion of current agroforestry programmes to more explicitly include silvopasture.
According to Jabob Grace, interactions job manager with the Savanna Institute, a non-profit that supports agroforestry practises, “The USDA is doing a lot, but a lot more could be done.” His company is urging Congress to increase funding in the 2023 Farm Bill from $5 million to $25 million for the National Agroforestry Centre, the only federal agency dedicated to the practise (Grace noted that the Centre has historically received less than $2 million annually). Additionally, they are pushing for the establishment of regional agroforestry centres, the expansion of a USDA technical assistance programme for agroforestry, and more grant money to help farmers like Sauder create a silvopasture system.
In Sauder’s pastures, “each tree has numerous advantages,” he said. The trees chosen to augment the animals’ diet were mulberry and honey locust, which contain leaves that are higher in protein than alfalfa and seed pods that are rich in sugar when they fall each fall. To protect the health of his herd, Sauder chose different tree species with lush canopies. When the cows need it in August, there will be shade here.
Providing shade may seem like a convenience, but in reality, it may be the difference between life and death. Numerous animals perished in Kansas last summer as a result of the state’s extreme heat and humidity. Scientists predict that incidents of death like the one in Kansas will become more common as the climate warms. Even when cattle endures brutally hot summers, the effects of heat stress can have a disastrous impact on a farm’s financial situation.
According to Grace, the farmers he works with are concerned about what higher temperatures mean for their incomes.
The first thing our manufacturers inquire about when we discuss silvopasture is shade, according to Grace. They are becoming aware of the higher temperatures. They have unappealing livestock that isn’t growing weight. When a farmer truly has overheated livestock, money practically just drains out of his pocket.
plenty of cash. According to a Cornell University research study published in 2022, annual losses of cattle herds from heat stress will reach $15 to $40 billion by the end of the century. The authors remember that “tree– animal systems can be extremely reliable in decreasing heat tension” in order to avoid these losses. And the Farm Bill’s financing might help more farmers start out.
There are additional ways besides shade for silvopasture to cut costs. The strategy is used by certain poultry breeders to guard their flocks against victim birds. To cut and manage weeds, vineyards and Christmas tree farms heavily rely on grazing animals.
A silvopasture system can help farmers diversify their crop production in addition to saving them money. The dehesa system of southern Spain, where Ibérico pigs graze among massive oak trees, feasting on acorns and fertilising the soil, may be one of the earliest and most effective examples of silvopasture. This system produces some of the most expensive ham in the world as well as a lucrative crop of cork.
Farmers may practise silvopasture for reasons related to the welfare of their livestock and financial gain, but perhaps the technique’s most persuasive advantage is its potential as a green alternative.
Since pastures with trees sequester 5 to 10 times more carbon than pastures of the same size but without trees, Task Drawdown, a nonprofit organisation that assesses environmental options, ranks silvopasture as the 11th most effective strategy for halting climate change—far ahead of solar panels, recycling, and electric vehicles.
A silvopasture system’s seasonal roots can also help sustain the soil, preventing both disintegration and the flooding that is becoming more common with larger rainfall. Additionally, a well-managed silvopasture enterprise can lower wildfire loads and boost biodiversity thanks to carefully spaced and manicured trees and grazing animals that control the shrubby understory.
Additionally, the gas-guzzling farming equipment and trucks often used to transport food to feedlots can be left in park while animals devour the fodder that is right in front of them. According to Grace, “reducing harvesting and carrying indicates a significant decrease in greenhouse gases.”
Large portions of the American Midwest, according to Grace, were once covered by a sort of natural silvopasture, an oak savanna ecosystem where grazing animals like bison fed on meadow beneath fruit and nut trees. Before European settlers started clearing the region of trees and building farms that operated more like factories, many Indigenous civilizations embraced and benefited from this type of land management.
According to Grace, this emphasis on efficiency led to widespread monoculture and annual cropping systems where “for an excellent portion of the year, very little is taking place.”
According to a 2017 USDA research, only approximately 1.5% of American farmers (or roughly 31,000) currently engage in any sort of agroforestry, including silvopasture. Interest in the practise is growing as summers become hotter and environmental predictions become more worrisome. The National Agroforestry Centre of the USDA’s Matthew Smith claimed that “the need for silvopasture understanding and information is greater than anybody can supply.”
Because silvopasture requires choosing the best trees and food for the local environment and moving animals continuously from one site to another, it is more complicated than letting animals run free in the woods.
“If people are interested in silvopasture, they really need to have knowledge of rotational grazing beforehand… which is difficult to find,” Smith said. “When all of your crops remain in the same spot, things can go wrong quickly.” For example, animals that are left in one place for too long might damage trees, and plants that are cultivated too closely together can compete with one another for light and nutrients.
There are further challenges. Silvopasture systems require a significant amount of land and additional labour, at least initially, to maintain. Additionally, it takes trees a while to develop and begin to offer major benefits. The cost of buying, planting, and maintaining trees is by far the biggest obstacle for many farmers who want to practise silvopasture.
The vast majority of silvopasture businesses rely on grants and cost-sharing programmes from organisations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA; programmes that are heavily dependent on the additional funding and staff that this year’s Farm Bill might provide, according to Grace. According to Grace, the few existing agroforestry programs—including the Conservation Reserve Programme and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program—need to be modified to clarify how they fund silvopasture projects and give farmers more opportunities to share costs.
Agroforestry practises should have a 75% government expenditure share under the 2023 Farm Bill, according to Carbon 180, an environmental NGO and ally of the Savanna Institute. This will help farmers cover upfront costs and ensure they have access to high-quality, locally appropriate trees and shrubs.
Financing is still a “significant barrier to farmers wanting to pursue silvopasture,” according to Austin Unruh, proprietor of Trees for Graziers, who helped Tim Sauder obtain funding from the NRCS office in Pennsylvania. According to Unruh, whose company has helped approximately 25 farms implement silvopasture over the past three years, helping farmers pay for them “has really been annoying. Every time, there are different finance sources and hurdles to clear.
The state’s financial assistance to Sauder was essential. Without it, the trees in his pasture simply would not survive, at least not for the next 20 or so years, he claimed.
He acknowledges that the new approach has required a lot of work up front, but he hopes that it will pay off in the form of healthier pasture, soil, and cows — and ideally, the ability of his property to support more of them.
But Sauder is one of those people who is most influenced by working with nature. He claimed that managing his farm with the wellbeing of the community at the forefront is similar to correcting the mistakes made by his predecessors, Mennonite immigrants who displace Indigenous people and manipulate the land.
“I’m trying to imagine what would have happened if they had come here and asked, ‘What’s the best way to live here?'”