Trees often are left in cattle pastures for shade and beauty, but research has shown that they can be planted there as a second crop without hindering the first.
Cattle, hay and lumber can be produced on the same ground at the same time. Known as silvopasture, it is the practice of growing widely spaced pine trees on land that is being farmed for cattle and hay production.
John Kushla, forestry specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the dual land management system requires extra effort but offers short- and long-term pay-offs.
“The selling point is you can grow as much pasture under a few trees as you can under no trees,” Kushla said. “The trees that you have give you the benefit of a longer-term investment that you can be working on while you're growing livestock and forage.”
Silvopasture is suited to cattle producers wanting to make extra money by adding a forestry element or to forest landowners wanting to add cattle. Kushla said it requires more intensive land management than typically required in a timber operation.
The practice is suited to existing pasture with and without trees. Trees scattered in a pasture make cutting hay difficult, but it does not limit cows' ability to graze the forage.
Planting trees in a pasture gives the advantage of spacing the trees appropriately and making wide rows that hay cutting equipment can navigate.
“You need to maintain low tree density to allow the grasses to grow. You can alternate a couple of rows of trees with a wide alley for pasture, then a couple more rows of trees,” Kushla said. “This lends the possibility of grazing or cutting hay.”
Plant no more than 300 to 350 trees per acre rather than the typical 600 to 700 pines planted per acre in a timber-only tract. Keep livestock from grazing this pasture for about three years, when the trees are more than 10 feet tall.
Because of their low density, the trees require intensive management, and the loss of a few trees can significantly impact the financial return.
“It takes some very careful forestry to maintain the relatively few trees you have out there,” Kushla said. “You must thin, prune, fertilize and apply herbicides carefully to maintain the timber crop and retain the best trees for final harvest.”
Kushla said silvopasture is not widely practiced in Mississippi, but Louisiana and Florida leaders are promoting it to their producers.
Lynn Ellison is an area forester with the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Tupelo, Miss. He is preparing about 60 acres of land in Chickasaw County for silvopasture. He started work on his land about a year ago.
“The land was in pasture when we started. We killed the grass, bedded it and planted trees. We changed our forage type from a warm-season to a cool-season grass, which gave us a longer growing season in a time of year when we needed it,” Ellison said.
He is putting in a non-freezing water system and dividing the acreage into cells for rotational grazing. He expects to introduce cows to the newly prepared acreage next September when the trees are about two and a half years old.
Ellison said the cows will be managed no differently than they are in any rotational grazing system, and the trees see accelerated growth from the pasture fertilization applied every year.
“We're pretty well convinced you can grow the same amount of grass with or without the trees,” Ellison said. “The cattle give cash flow and at the end of the whole operation, you have money for your retirement when you harvest the trees.”
Ellison said he began researching silvopasture after his office kept getting calls from landowners interested in the practice. “I kept telling them it wouldn't work,” Ellison said, but then he visited operating systems in Texas, Florida, Georgia and south Alabama. “We decided it would work for certain situations. We modified our answer and now are encouraging it for people willing to do it right.”
“Doing it right” means rotating the cattle so they don't graze any one section of pasture too long and managing the trees for optimal growth. Left unmanaged, the system would collapse, Ellison said.
New this year is a cost-sharing program offered by the NRCS through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, or EQIP. More information is available at NRCS county offices.
Since 1989, MSU has been studying this practice at its Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station McNeil Unit in Pearl River County.
Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.