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Silvopasture The Benefits of Integrating Trees with Livestock

 

Sabrenna Bennett, NRCS public affairs assistant


In the business of farming, using the land and its natural resources to reap the greatest benefit is usually a main priority. Farmers are now learning how to use their land for multiple purposes, while also maintaining its quality and protecting precious resources. Conservation practices and techniques are one way that farmers are balancing production and resource protection in South Carolina. One such practice is silvopasture, which provides farmers with multiple benefits by integrating the planting of trees with livestock grazing and forage operations. Saluda County NRCS District Conservationist Hugh Smith says, “Silvopasture systems can optimize the production of both timber products and forage.” Ultimately, silvopastures can provide economic returns while creating a sustainable system with many environmental benefits.
Saluda farmer Fletcher Arant has seen these environmental benefits firsthand at his 750- acre family farm (which consists of pasture, timber, and 60 cows). In 2001, Arant enrolled 65 acres into a ten-year easement through the NRCS Forestry Incentives Program (FIP), a program which the 2002 Farm Bill de-authorized.
He explains that he is able to “kill two birds with one stone” by combining the benefits of FIP with silvopasture. Fletcher is not only providing an ample and healthy grazing system for his livestock, but is also able to make a profit from the timber production. In addition, grazing can enhance tree growth by controlling grass competition for moisture, nutrients and sunlight. Well managed grazing provides economical control of weeds and brush without herbicides, maintains fire breaks and reduces habitat for gnawing rodents. Fertilizer applied for forage is also used by the trees. In addition, livestock manure recycles nutrients to trees and forage.
At Arant’s farm, there are 350 loblolly pines per acre with the trees spaced ten feet apart in each row and each row is separated by a 30-foot alley. Sufficient space is needed to allow the full potential of growth, which in turn improves the overall quality of the trees.
“One of the best benefits of this system is that timber management is minimal,” explains Smith. Once trees are planted, usually in winter, cows aren’t allowed to graze the pasture for three years, allowing the trees time to grow and strengthen. Grass is usually cut and used as hay. As for maintenance, trees are usually pruned about three times before harvesting, and are considered full grown and mature between 20-25 years.
Other benefits of the program are that the trees provide a haven for wildlife habitat. The addition of trees has brought about an increase in the number of quail, deer and turkey that inhabit the farm. The trees also act as buffers, preventing harmful nutrients from entering a nearby lake and other water sources.
“The combination of silvopasture and FIP has noticeably increased wildlife diversity and improved water quality on this operation,” said Smith. By incorporating silvopasture with tree production, soil is protected from water and wind erosion, and the soil is enhanced with organic matter. In contrast to concentrated livestock operations, silvopastoral systems are less likely to raise environmental concerns related to water quality, odors, dust, noise, disease problems and animal treatment.
By creating a silvopastural system and incorporating additional environmental benefits through FIP, Arant has gone one step further in securing the health of the soil and water resources at his farm.
In the future, Fletcher intends to maintain the silvopastural system even after his FIP contract expires, and hopes to add more timber.