Happy Farmers, Healthy Livestock, and Climate Mitigation: Is Silvopasture the Answer?
For thousands of years, humans have been clearing forests to make room for agriculture. But this conventional way of doing things often has negative impacts on the land. At ACES, we’ve started to implement agroforestry. Agroforestry combines agriculture and forestry into a single, more sustainable system. This practice can provide many benefits to land, people, and animals.
Like many agricultural landscapes around the world, our pastures at Rock Bottom Ranch were once deforested to make way for agriculture. But recently, we’ve been implementing an ancient agroforestry practice. This practice, called silvopasture, integrates grazing livestock and trees in the same land.
Cattle grazing near the cottonwood stands at Rock Bottom Ranch
An Ancient Agricultural Practice That Deserves Attention Today
So, what is silvopasture? Silvopasture combines trees, forage, and grazing animals into a single system. Silvopasture has lots of benefits for farmers and the planet. For example:
- Silvopastoral practices can boost productivity and income.
- Silvopasture has higher rates of carbon sequestration compared to conventional agriculture.
- Silvopasture contributes to a healthier ecosystem.
The general ideas around silvopasture aren’t new — for example, bison historically fed on North American savannas, and Indigenous Peoples fed horses in river bottoms. Currently, it’s estimated that silvopastoral systems exist on about 550 million hectares of land across the globe. Theoretically, there are more than 800 million hectares of land suited to the practice of silvopasture. Globally, there’s a lot of potential for integrating this practice into agricultural areas.
Transitioning an area to using silvopasture is usually done by one of two methods:
- Planting trees in an existing pasture
- Thinning a stand of existing trees and introducing forage
Silvopasture requires a delicate balance: maintaining the tree canopy and sustaining forage production. Weed control, tree pruning, and grazing management all contribute to a healthy silvopastoral system. A silvopastoral system requires animals, of course. These could be grazing animals, like cattle, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, ostriches, emus, or game animals, like bison, elk, or deer. While not always easy to implement, silvopasture is a more sustainable replacement to conventional livestock grazing.
Sheep graze in a front pasture at RBR where we are introducing silvopasture practices.
Cap-K Cattle grazing in a pasture at Rock Bottom Ranch.
Silvopasture Benefits: Farming That Offsets Its Own Carbon Footprint
Early on, we mentioned some of the broad benefits of silvopasture. But there’s a lot more to love about this agroforestry practice. Traditional agricultural practices aim to get the biggest profit possible without always considering impacts on the land. But silvopasture focuses on the health of the ecosystem and benefits for farmers. Replacing conventional agricultural practices with silvopasture can have positive effects on everything from carbon sequestration to diversifying a farmers’ revenue streams.
Environmental Benefits of Silvopasture
Silvopasture can have enormous benefits for mitigating climate change and restoring the health of an ecosystem. First, silvopasture has incredible potential for carbon sequestration:
- If the majority of land suited to silvopasture across the globe actually transitioned to practicing it, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26.6-42.3 gigatons.
- Pastures interspersed with trees sequester up to ten times as much carbon as conventional pastures of the same size.
- Silvopasture also offsets methane and nitrous oxide emissions that result from normal farming practices through carbon sequestration (at least until the soil is saturated with carbon)
In addition to sequestering carbon in biomass and soil, silvopasture can help farmers adapt to challenges that are already happening as a result of our warming climate. For example, planting trees in pastures can reduce soil moisture loss and provide shade in warming environments.
With the increase in ecosystem diversity, silvopasture also creates more wildlife habitat.
Last, silvopastoral systems are less likely to cause problems related to water quality, disease, and animal treatment when compared to conventional concentrated livestock operations. In fact, silvopasture can even improve water quality and help protect soil from erosion.
Benefits for Farmers
Silvopasture’s benefits don’t only extend to the planet — they can help out farmers, too. When farmers implement silvopasture, they’re diversifying their streams of revenue. Rather than relying solely on livestock, revenue can come from the trees, nuts, mushrooms and fruits that they’re also producing in a silvopastoral system. Farmers can enjoy greater resiliency instead of relying on a single income stream. While it can be costly to implement, net profits of silvopasture have the potential to far outweigh net profits of conventional grazing on a per-hectare basis.
By providing shade to animals and returning native species to agricultural areas, silvopasture improves the health of a farmer’s livestock and land in several ways:
In a rapidly changing climate, these benefits to farmers are even more important.
Shannon Hourigan, 2021 RBR Livestock Apprentice, with sheep in a front pasture, where we planted native tree species in 2021 for shade and coverage.
Jen Ghigiarelli, RBR Livestock Manager, working near our cottonwood galleries.
Introducing Silvopasture to Rock Bottom Ranch
Excited about the benefits of silvopasture, we’re starting to return some native species to agricultural areas at Rock Bottom Ranch. In 2021, we began planting native trees in one of the front pastures at the Ranch. This 1.5-acre area hosts several rotations of ruminants and poultry through the year, including chickens, turkeys, cattle, sheep, and goats. We're already seeing agricultural benefits — shade for livestock and a decrease in soil moisture loss.
We’ve also been introducing livestock into declining cottonwood galleries at Rock Bottom Ranch. These cottonwood stands are native riparian forests that are adapted to periodic flooding.
The construction of dams and diversions in the Roaring Fork Watershed prevent flooding, but floods are crucial in maintaining the health of this ecosystem. Floods clear out competing vegetation — like grasses, willows, and forbs — and expose bare mineral soil necessary for regeneration. In many of the cottonwood galleries around Rock Bottom Ranch, we've noticed very little recruitment — the process in which individual plants are added to the existing population. But after grazing livestock in some of the galleries, we’ve noticed some improvement: The soil disturbance and herbivory of the smaller vegetation has led to the growth of new cottonwoods. With more age diversity in these cottonwood stands, we’re improving the overall health of this ecosystem. With a few successes under our belt, we’re excited to learn more about how silvopasture can benefit our land and community.
Ray Mooney, 2021 Rock Bottom Ranch Livestock Apprentice, working in a ditch by our cottonwood galleries.
Help Us Continue Implementing Silvopasture at Rock Bottom Ranch
Silvopasture has the potential to transform the impacts of agriculture across the planet. While it can be expensive to implement, the environmental and economic benefits of silvopasture are worth the extra effort. Curious about silvopasture, agroforestry, and agriculture in action? Head to acesagriculture.org to learn about our agriculture programs and how we’re implementing sustainable farming practices in the Roaring Fork Valley. Learn more about Rock Bottom Ranch here.
Photography by Chris Cohen Photography