The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Appalachian silvopasture

SilvopastureResearchers in Beaver, West Virginia, have been exploring forest pastures (aka silvopastures) for over a decade.  Since I've been playing around with reinventing the wheel for the last couple of years, I was intrigued to see solid data from a location just two and a half hours from our farm.


Traditionally, large-scale experimenters planted trees in existing pastures to create silvopastures, but Charles Feldhake, Jim Neel, and the other researchers at the Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center tried a different tack.  They thinned out 70 year old forest dominated by white oak until the combined diameter at breast height of the remaining trees was about 50 to 65 feet per acre.  For those of you who don't spend your time wrapping tape measurers around tree trunks, that would require removing up to 75% of the trees --- you can get an idea of the final tree cover from the photos included in this post.

Sheep in silvopastureThe next step was pasture establishment.  After soil testing, the scientists spread the appropriate amount of lime (to raise the pH) and chemical fertilizer on the soil surface, along with seeds for orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, and white clover.  Then they turned in the sheep.

Although I wrote last week that sheep are maintainer livestock, Feldhake and company used their woolly grazers as colonizers, noting that the sheep not only ate up the undergrowth but also mashed the seeds and soil amendments into the top layer of soil.  Once pasture seeds started to sprout, the sheep were removed to let the grass and clover establish themselves, but they were later turned back in to rotationally graze the new pastures.

Here are some comparisons between the silvopastures and neighboring non-treed pastures:

Appalachian silvopastureSo what are the take-home messages for those of us interested in creating forest pasture of our own?

Several other studies have suggested that a savannah-like environment, with scattered trees over a grassy sward, is the most biologically productive combination of trees and undergrowth.  In other words --- space those trees out rather than letting them shade the whole forest floor!

Since you're losing about half of your sunlight to the tree canopy, it becomes very important for the trees to have a purpose in a silvopasture system.  For chickens, that means planting mulberries, persimmons, and other fruit trees rather than letting the flock graze under whatever happens to be present.  For pigs, you might focus on chestnuts, oaks, and honey-locusts too.  Time to practice what I preach and replace those box-elders with fruit trees!

Our chicken waterer is the perfect addition to a pasture, attracting your flock to the far edges for more thorough grazing.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I am very interested in creating a forest pasture at some point on our property. One concern is that it would be very difficult to mow should you ever have to let it grow up for some reason. I know you "should" be letting the animals do all the work, but let's say you couldn't have any in the pasture for a full year due to illness, parasites, long-term travel, etc... Would you then just have to turn goat loose in it? If so, it would all have to be fenced for goats, even if your primary maintainer were sheep. That brings up something else: Fencing. In an open pasture you don't have to worry about falling limbs so much, but it seems to me like you'd constantly be clearing branches off the fence-line in a forest pasture unless you had a pretty good "outside lane" of non-treed pasture around the perimeter.

Anyway just thinking out loud. Would love your input. We're on a rolling hillside that dips down and back up so we have both North and South-Facing slopes with about two acres of what you could call "flat-ish" at the top. All the neighbors graze cattle, but I've seen the red-clay ruts they create in terrain like ours. No thanks!

Comment by Everett Mon Oct 3 08:53:38 2011
If you pasture pigs there will be no grass left. In 19th century 1000 acre farms in Ohio, the pig pasture was an acre dense nut grove. It had no under story because pigs root up everything.
Comment by Errol Mon Oct 3 09:26:06 2011

There is just something inherently lovely about a tree-canopied pasture, even if it is not as efficient as a savannah-like or completely open one. I think in planning land use, one has to take into account aesthetics to some degree - I'm kinda weird about my space/environment like that... :)

Sarah in Boulder Creek CA

Comment by Sarah Mon Oct 3 11:33:27 2011
The cattle farm I grew up on (it's leased now) has large open grass areas but there are shade trees sprinkled throughout and about a third of the acreage is thicker woods, thicker and much shadier than the example shown. Timber is definitely part of the "crop." The timber probably actually produced more income than the cows though harvests only occur every few decades. There were often trees falling on fences but the neighbors on other sides had trees there as well so repairs were part of ongoing maintenance and a source of firewood. The wooded areas provided wind breaks and good cover for the cows in the heat and in winter and they usually preferred these areas to the barn during rough weather. The trees also helped balance the moisture keeping it from getting too boggy in the wet seasons and providing some structure to the soil via leaf litter and roots to avoid creating mud holes. Trees were allowed to grow along the branch water source so that the roots would help hold the stream beds in place (cows can be pretty destructive). Additionally, cows also like to eat vines and some kinds of tree leaves so the wooded areas do provide some forage though little grass grew there. I know a lot of the cattle farmers in this area get some kind of subsidy paid per acre for following beneficial practices that avoid erosion like leaving trees in riparian areas. Depending on your state there may also be property tax considerations; timber areas are taxed at a different rate than pasture areas here.
Comment by Lisa Mon Oct 3 11:34:44 2011

Everett -- Those are extremely good points! I think the trouble with mowing is why the WV folks used sheep to initiate the pastures, and it's possible that you could do some reclamation with sheep (along with elbow grease and a ninja blade.) The whole mowing issue is one we're currently trying to figure out with our chicken pastures, so I'm sure you'll hear a lot more about it as I figure out the best solution.

Fencing is another excellent point. I think that in their study, they had a good fence around the perimeter and then used moveable electric fences. I'm not sure how much trouble falling limbs would be in the long run, though --- perhaps not as much as you think. Our driveway runs right through the woods and it seems like we only have to move sizeable limbs off it a couple of times per year.

In your hilly situation, you might try building fences that run along the contour. I don't know enough to be sure, but I suspect that eroded cow paths like that wouldn't be a problem in quicker rotations since the cows wouldn't be traveling from point A to point B so much.

Daddy --- As with any other pasture degradation, the situation you're referring to is an overstocking issue. I read the blog of a pastured pig producer, and his pastures look very lush, but he also has a lot of acreage and moves the pigs frequently. The bare pig pasture is the same as the bare chicken run --- the result of mismanagement that puts too many animals in too little space.

Sarah --- I totally agree that trees are beautiful! I think the trick is to make your pastures efficient enough that you can also set aside true woodland to remain in its natural state too. That's my incentive toward making my pastures go as far as possible.

Lisa --- I really appreciate you sharing first hand information! I think that doubling pasture with timber was the real point of the silvopasture study I was reading about (and why they chose an area with white oaks.) On a smaller homesteading scale, you might want faster returns, especially since it's tough to sell just a few really good trees. (We tried to find a buyer for a few tall, beautiful walnuts our first year on the farm, but failed miserably. I guess it's just not worth anyone's while to haul out a couple of beautiful trees, even if they are a high value species.)

It's good to hear that trees on the fences wasn't a huge deal, although something to be aware of. And to hear that the trees did a lot of work on equalizing the pasture --- that's a pro of silvopastures that I didn't really talk about in my post, but that the scientists were very interested in. Great data!

Comment by anna Mon Oct 3 14:19:22 2011

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