Silvopasture: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem
By Steve Gabriel
Chelsea Green Publishing
Our farm consists of thirty-five acres. Some of the land is in pasture, but much is mixed scrublands or poorly managed woods—the leftovers of previous owners and their misdeeds or misplaced priorities. Thus, almost half of our farm is unproductive and unused. This isn’t uncommon. Many farms suffer from a severe divide between field and forest—between where food and animals are raised and where trees and hunting are good. But what if these things need not be in opposition? What if these arbitrary distinctions limit not only our farm’s potential, but that of our livestock and land as well? This is where the concept of silvopasture and the book Silvopasture shine. There are very few books and little information available for those interested in integrating pasture and forest, so Steve Gabriel’s well-organized and easy-to-read book is a welcome addition to what I hope will become an important subject for regenerative and sustainable farmers.
The book’s first chapter, which defines silvopasture, is helpful in light of the American approach to farming, which has set up false divisions among crop land, pasture land and forest. Gabriel discusses the many economic, ecological and other benefits of breaking down those divisions. For instance, many farms, like my own, have as much as 20 to 30 percent of their land in poorly managed forest, scrub or other marginal landscapes. These spots make perfect places to unleash the power of silvopasture to reclaim and regenerate the ecosystem and also to increase short- and long-term revenues. Silvopasture offers these benefits in abundance for all parts of the system. Not only is silvopasture a boon to farms, it is a blessing to birds, bees and other creatures.
The second chapter gives an overview of the ecological differences between forest and pasture systems and explores historical examples. Sustainable silvopasture systems have been around for hundreds of years, and their combination of beauty, productivity and profitability is impressive. Perhaps you have heard of the famed Iberian pigs from Spain and Portugal, but did you know that the pigs are only one part of a complex silvopasture system dating back hundreds (if not thousands) of years that also produces cork and sheep? Such systems abound all over the world, delicately balancing the inclusion of animals into ecosystems that produce a number of short-, medium-, and long-term products. I also was happy to see the book discuss many traditional forestry techniques—including the pruning techniques of coppicing and pollarding—that for the most part have been lost in America.
The third chapter moves from theory to practice, discussing specifics of animals, fencing and other introductory issues. While much of the information is basic, even an experienced farmer will find it useful because Gabriel applies the basics to a new context and approach to pasturing animals. I appreciated Gabriel’s discussion of many different tools that can help people understand and then apply silvopasture approaches to the management of their farms. It was especially useful to see how many ways a piece of property can and should be mapped—in relation to wind, water, light, soil types and quality, pasture species, tree species and more. This can help guide decisions, allowing farmers to understand what their farm is, what they want it to be and how to get there.
The next two chapters get to the “meat” of bringing meat into the tree mix or trees into the meat mix. Chapter Four deals with bringing animals into woodlands, while Chapter Five covers bringing trees into pasture. Which animals and which species? How to train them to new foodstuffs? What trees? What planting patterns? These chapters show how to begin applying silvopasture principles. Gabriel points out that many properties have low-risk and low-cost areas (hedgerows and other brush and scrub lands) suited to initial experiments—because they need remediation anyway. Converting these to silvopasture also can provide shelter and sustenance for animals, making this sometimes difficult and time-consuming task far more enjoyable and economical. Chapter Five, an excellent guide on “how to tree,” covers almost every issue, including planting, weeds, water and unwanted animal pressure.
Throughout the book, Gabriel emphasizes the importance of good planning before planting, pruning or plowing. Chapter Six delves into planning in greater depth for those ready to take the jump into converting some land to silvopasture. To increase the odds of success, he offers a comprehensive outline and tools to use or adapt before starting to apply silvopasture techniques, including some helpful financial forecasting tools.
Why should traditional food people care about silvopasture? First, silvopasture moves us back toward what traditional systems looked like, in terms of how animals were raised and what ecosystems produced to feed, heal, clothe, shelter and heat us. Second, it increases the nutrient density of our foods. I have written a lot about this problem, and silvopasture is one way to remedy it over time. Third, for many species of animals, silvopasture is a way to reduce reliance on bagged and bought modern, industrial feeds—helping farmers get further away from the corn, soy and other annuals that do so much damage to our soils and ecosystems. Tree fodder is an excellent, historical and too long overlooked way to provide food to our animals. Pasture alone isn’t sufficient for most animals, and even if a farm has excellent pastures, the benefits of turning them into silvopasture are numerous. Silvopasture can make an immense difference for our farms by increasing their resilience and reducing our reliance on outside inputs.
“A society becomes great when people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.” This slightly modified quote encapsulates one of the greatest challenges of silvopasture: the need for patience. Such systems take years to establish and may take a decade or more to become fully functioning and fruitful, financially and otherwise. Although there are many short-term benefits, these systems’ real value won’t be fully enjoyed by those who start them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t pursue silvopasture, however, but those of us who do need to understand that we are investing in a gift to those who will come after us.
Hopefully, Silvopasture will encourage many farmers who may not see the full benefits in their lifetime to plant a tree (or two thousand), reclaim thousands of acres of hedgerows and turn scrub land into pasture forests, so that future farmers may enjoy more fruitful and financially viable farms, and future eaters may have access to more nutrient-dense, traditional foods. Two trees (or more) up!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2018.