Trees, crops, livestock mix fights climate change


Silvopasture in Georgia. Image: USDA National Agroforestry Center, Flickr.

By Caroline Miller

Growing crops, trees and livestock on the same land could help farmers battle climate change.

This technique is known as silvopasture, and it creates a sink to collect carbon responsible for global warming. It also battles erosion and improves soil.

A main contributor to climate change is the release of carbon dioxide that warms our climate. Silvopasture manages forages, forests and livestock on the same land. It draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil, said Monica Jean, fields crop educator of Michigan State University Extension.

“Naturally, farming already does draw down carbon some, because we are going through photosynthesis, so carbon is coming into those plants,” Jean said. “But a sink would be where you’re actually taking that carbon and putting it back into the soil so that there is a negative.”

This story is part of an occasional series called “Climate Solutions.”

If managed properly, silvopasture can achieve a system where none of the resources are managed to the detriment of the other, Jean said.

MSU Extension has been working with farmers around the state to optimize their systems through an environmental lens, she said.

“Over the 30 years that I’ve been observing and involved in silvopasturing, I’ve never really experienced a downside to it,” said Brett Chedzoy, the regional forester for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

Chedzoy, who has worked with MSU Extension, has captured carbon with silvopasture on his own land for more than 10 years.

“Simply put, we’re growing more biomass per acre in a silvopasture than a treeless pasture or a woods,” Chedzoy said. “So, we’re both capturing and storing more carbon per acre.”

His first experience with silvopasturing was in the U.S. Peace Corps working in Central Argentina 30 years ago, Chedzoy said. It was there that he saw how the practice limits erosion.

“This is an area where it rains 40 inches a year, about the same as Michigan or New York, and much of that rain comes during the summer months in the form of intensive storms,” Chedzoy said. “Historically, this mountainous landscape was very prone to flash flooding because the rain would hit this treeless landscape, and often an overgrazed landscape, and instead of infiltrating into the soil, it would just run off and cause flash flooding and along with it erosion and other issues.”

Trees he has planted intercept a lot of that rainfall and allow it to infiltrate instead of run off, he said.

“That’s just one environmental benefit of having the trees there,” Chedzoy said.

Not only is silvopasture creating carbon sinks – and preventing flash floods and runoff, it’s also benefiting the soil.

“The trees are also adding a tremendous amount of organic matter to the soil, which further helps improve the soil health and the ability of that soil to absorb rainfall,” Chedzoy said.

Another farm that has worked with MSU Extension and has had success with silvopasture is JNelson Farms in Hope, Michigan.

Jon Nelson, the manager and owner of the farm, introduced silvopasture in the spring of 2018. One of the major improvements from it has been in water cycling and nutrient cycling which has improved soil health and carbon sequestering, he said.

“We’ve been able to hold water better and go through larger rains,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he believes silvopasture is a great solution to climate change and he hasn’t had any problems with it.

“I think it’s a practice that could substantially increase forestry and our situation,” Nelson said.

Even though JNelson Farms hasn’t experienced any drawbacks, Chedzoy said there are limitations to managing silvopasture.

“Our biggest challenge, and this is probably true of nearly all farms, is time,” he said. “It requires more management, and it requires going out and doing new things that can be quite labor intensive.”

One way to overcome that challenge would be to hire others to do the work, like a logging crew or consulting foresters, he said. But it’s not easy to find the best people to do the job.

“Silvopasturing is something that requires more than the status quo of skill and management inputs,” Chedzoy said.

Jean, the Michigan field crops educator, said another drawback is that silvopasture must be used on wooded land, which not every farm has, and it needs to be managed properly.

“You don’t want to damage the trees, that’s one of the main issues is this long-term compaction problem, so you do need to be careful, and you need to manage it well,” Jean said.

When livestock isn’t intensively managed in a silvopasture system, excessive activity from the animals around the root zone can cause soil to compact, damaging root zones in a certain amount of time, she said.

Jean also emphasized the challenge of time.

“You only have a certain amount of time that you can do this under trees for, and then those trees are going to be harvested, and then that land pretty much is going to be closed off to you because you need to allow for regeneration to happen of the trees again,” Jean said.

If a farm doesn’t have a wooded area to implement silvopasture, then it can get costly to plant the trees needed for this system to work, she said.

Even with these limitations, Chedzoy said he believes any grazer can learn to do good silvopasturing management, but it comes down to if the farmer is willing to make the commitment.

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