COLUMNS: Silvopasture: what is it and why?

There was some work done the past few years investigating how we improve tree growth.

This past week, there was a culmination of some work done over the past few years investigating how we might improve tree growth along with livestock feed in a treed pasture situation.

There is some research that says much more carbon can be sequestered when livestock graze under an open canopy of trees.

Some years ago the BC Ministry of Agriculture investigated possible new crops for farmers to grow as a way of seeking new revenue streams and perhaps stewarding the land better.

After working with industry representatives and government researchers, an agroforestry strategy was accepted and work proceeded to apply the strategy in various regions and with different plans.

Our ranch stepped up and offered to work with the experts to see what might be effective.

In our case we wanted to keep some land we purchased after it was logged in a pasture use rather than just letting it brush in and eventually return to a full forest canopy.

We needed early spring and late fall pasture if we were to lower our winter feeding costs by extending the length of time cattle could feed themselves.

The plan was to allow the trees to grow under natural conditions, that is, not to plant trees, but allow them to sprout on their own.

We could keep the intensive brush under control by grazing small sections of land at a time with a lot of cattle for a short duration so they would eat grass, forbs and nibble the tender brush.

As it turns out, much of the brush has grown up quicker than we thought and it takes some effort to thin the deciduous trees (poplar or aspen, birch and alder) and encourage grass among the spaced trees.

At this time of year when the young trees are palatable to cattle, they browse on them along with plants such as hazel, rose, thimbleberry and many other plants.

Where soil was disturbed by logging and road building domestic grasses and legumes were seeded by hand.

Of course cattle spread grass seed as they move around grazing.

However, one of the most effectives ways of creating pasture between the trees is to “bale graze” or perhaps more accurately bale feed cows by placing bales of hay in brushy areas.

We put out four days of feed at once and the cows will eat what they need.

They defecate and urinate on some they don’t eat but that is not waste as it absorbs the nutrients and it composts on its own creating habitat for grasses.

The land is opened up by cows trampling the brush and eating some of it as they seek a little variety after a long winter’s diet of hay. The effect is dramatic.

We are able to place and keep cattle in targeted areas using temporary electric fence.

Right now they are on areas with a lot of aspen suckering from the root systems.

Our silvospasture (which means trees and pasture with livestock grazing) is on high and dry ground which we use during the muddy spring as a better place for cows and their calves than the wet bottom lands along the waterways.

We are located out in the transition belt between the drier grasslands and the interior rainforest where brush abounds.

Eventually we will have a crop of trees which we can harvest for the lumber industry. In the meantime we get economic use of the land by growing beef.

Trees and pasture around the world are considered great companions and together they promote biodiversity, retain more water provide shade for livestock in a warming world, reduce wind and provide cover for wildlife.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake in January of 2016.