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Silvopasture: A Practical Natural Climate Solution

What is silvopasture?

Silvopasture is the practice of intentionally integrating trees, grazing livestock, and forages on the same landscape. A type of agroforestry, this practice can help reduce emissions from agriculture and support carbon sequestration and storage in soils and biomass and is currently implemented on more than 500 million acres worldwide. Establishing trees on livestock pastures or creating animal pastures beneath trees can be an effective natural climate solution with the potential to generate environmental and economic co-benefits. Despite these advantages, there is a significant domestic opportunity for more widespread adoption of silvopasture.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are examples of trees and forages suitable to different regions of the country. Trees such as the black locust, a common species found in the U.S., are well suited for establishment on pasturelands because of their fast growth rates and ability to produce fodder for livestock. Further, the practice of “turning livestock into the woods” is still a popular method of grazing woodlands; but the lack of management that is prominent in this practice makes it more prone to poor environmental and economic outcomes. In this sense, silvopasture-type management could be leveraged to turn widespread unmanaged woodland grazing practices into more productive and sustainable systems.

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Environmental and economic benefits of silvopasture

A main benefit of silvopasture is that it presents a significant opportunity for carbon mitigation. The addition of trees on pastureland increases the diversity of active carbon sinks on the landscape. In fact, Project Drawdown, an organization focused on climate change mitigation, has shown that silvopasture landscapes sequester 5 to 10 times as much carbon as pastures without trees. Additionally, the group notes that silvopasture ranks the highest amongst their other agricultural solutions with regard to its mitigation potential. Because silvopasture can be used to make existing pasture more carbon efficient or turn existing woodlands into productive grazing spaces without undergoing the process of clearcutting, the practice offers farmers high value in terms of its flexibility as a natural climate solution.

Furthermore, the co-benefits that silvopasture offers may provide the needed incentives for farmers to incorporate the practice. The USDA suggests that some of the potential benefits of silvopasture include reduction in soil erosion, shade for livestock, diversified sources of income (from the additional timber, nuts, fruits etc.), increased biological diversity, improved forage quality, and more. These tangible co-benefits could be emphasized to producers and landowners to enhance practice adoption.

Notably, effectively achieving these benefits requires thoughtful management. The Virginia Cooperative Extension explains the “four ‘I’ principles of Silvopastures” that are integral to successful implementation: the practice must be (I) intentional, (II) intensive, (III) integrated, and (IV) interactive. Thus, silvopasture requires consistent maintenance, planning, and an active understanding of land in order to be the most effective. In contrast, if improperly managed, silvopasture can yield various detrimental outcomes resulting from livestock.

Government support needed for silvopasture development

According to USDA, the integration of agriculture and forestry through practices like silvopasture was common up until the 20th century when a shift towards managing agriculture and forestry as discrete systems occurred due to the creation of separate research programs for each. Because silvopasture offers a strategy that positions the nation’s farmers as providers of climate change solutions while also increasing their economic livelihoods, greater consideration is needed at the federal level on how best to support adoption of the practice.

The USDA already has the programmatic infrastructure necessary to scale up the practice through technical assistance, funding, and education. Programs such as the Environmental Quality and Incentives Program (EQIP) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) could be instrumental in helping establish more silvopasture, but as a cropland soil quality practice, silvopasture in any given year typically receives a small amount of these grants in relation to some of the other practices. For example, in 2020, there were five EQIP grants given out for silvopasture as a soil health practice, in contrast to the 78,155 grants awarded for cover cropping activities. Moreover, although silvopasture has been designated as an NRCS conservation practice at the national level, it has not yet been adopted by all state and local offices. Thus, it may be helpful for the USDA to reevaluate the current conservation programs and their relation to silvopasture establishment to promote both the economic feasibility of the practice and a stronger familiarity at the local level.

Given the variation in forages and trees used in silvopasture across the U.S., education and local assistance are vital for ensuring effective, more widespread adoption of the practice.

This education should include detailed information about appropriate livestock, tree selection and management, and forage options to best inform landowners on suitable choices for their circumstances. However, the upfront costs that may come with both learning and investing in a new management method could prohibit its development. Therefore, it’s important to find ways to address initial costs to lessen the burden on farmers, making the practice more viable and accessible to those who can use it.

Looking toward the future

There is growing interest from landowners in the U.S. around the use of silvopasture, but barriers to adoption remain. One project through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program found that though producers view silvopasture favorably, they have questions around the utility and viability of such systems. Both producers and extension agents surveyed through the project expressed considerable uncertainty around the economics of silvopasture adoption, highlighting the need for additional research and a potential path forward for promoting silvopasture.

USDA has recognized the role agroforestry practices like silvopasture can play in supporting conservation efforts and the need for additional research and education to ensure producers have the information, resources, and tools necessary to implement the practice successfully. Their agroforestry strategic framework for fiscal years 2019 through 2024 seeks to advance the science and implementation of agroforestry practices like silvopasture across the country. This roadmap includes goals around outreach and education, basic and applied research, and the integration of agroforestry information across USDA agencies. USDA should strive to fully implement this strategic framework, with particular attention on expanding partnerships with the community groups and extension programs conducting outreach and technical assistance on the ground. Further, USDA should encourage state adoption of silvopasture as an NRCS conservation practice to ensure producers implementing silvopasture have access to NRCS funding and technical assistance.

Although silvopasture has many benefits it should not be seen as a one size fits all solution, but rather one of many options for producers to become more involved in natural carbon solutions. Other practices such as cover cropping, conservation tillage, and native grassland restoration are available to producers depending on each landowner’s unique circumstances and financial ability. BPC’s Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Initiative aims to engage various interests from agriculture, forestry, conservation, and policymaking in order to create an effective framework to best incorporate these types of practices as viable climate solutions. In the U.S., natural climate solutions have the potential to sequester 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – approximately 7% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Recognizing where climate goals and economic opportunities intersect will be essential to creating a viable climate strategy for the country moving forward.

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