Is Silvopasture the Silver Bullet to Our Climate Crisis?

Policy: In last week’s newsletter, we unpacked agroforestry’s ability to reduce emissions, improve land productivity, and increase farmer profitability. It is important to note that integrating trees with farmland can be even more impactful when used in tandem with grazing. This combination, otherwise known as silvopasture, can be achieved by planting trees into a conventional pasture or by thinning a wooded forest so that ruminants can graze beneath its canopy. This form of agroforestry deploys animals as a resource that restores land, keeps forests in place, and supports food sovereignty. To minimize tree damage, rotational grazing, which employs short grazing periods that maximize vegetative plant growth and harvest, is a key management strategy. 

Worldwide, it is estimated that silvopasture systems are used on 1.36 billion acres of land. And as much as 2.03 billion acres of global grasslands have enough rainfall and humidity to adopt silvopasture techniques. This method has been observed for centuries in Japan’s Kyushu province and Portugal’s montado, with more recent efforts in South American countries. A pasture planted with trees can sequester five to ten times more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than a land of the same size that is treeless – storing it both above- and below-ground in soils and tree biomass. Moreover, if farmers increased silvopasture acreage from its current rate to 1.9 billion acres by 2050, CO2 emissions could be reduced by up to 42.3 gigaton – offsetting all of the CO2 emitted by humans globally in 2015. In addition to curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, blending trees with grazing lands is one of the most impactful forms of regenerative agriculture because of the way it:

  • Creates closed-loop farm systems: By fusing grazing systems with trees, producers can improve biodiversity and tap into the symbiotic relationship between plants and herbivores. The ruminant animals – cattle, sheep, goats, etc. – can control weeds while providing natural fertilizer in the form of manure. In doing so, growers can reduce their reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And rather than clearing forests to grow commodity corn or soy to feed animals in confinement, the trees in silvopasture systems can offer animals nutritious forages (the edible parts of plants) – decreasing the need for farmers to buy external feedstock. 
  • Improves animal welfare and productivity: Silvopasture systems allow for livestock to live natural existences on open pastures. In a treeless grazing system, animals are not protected from cold or hot weather. In contrast, silvopasture provides windbreaks and shade. Tree coverage not only reduces heat stress on livestock, which usually leads to lower rates of fertility but also decreases the loss of newborn calves during winter weather. Furthermore, livestock protected by canopy coverage demonstrate a 10 percent improvement in weight gain and require up to 50 percent less feed. Overall, the transition from pasture to silvopasture can more than double the production of milk and protein on the same area of land. Increasing forage availability and quality also improve the nutrient density of animal products.

After adding up all of these benefits, Project Drawdown – a study into ways to reverse global warming – ranked silvopasture as the ninth most impactful climate change solution, above solar power, electric vehicles, and geothermal energy. Nonprofits like the Savanna Institute are offering landowners financing and technical support to help scale silvopasture across the US. Meanwhile, policymakers are working to craft legislation that drives the widespread adoption of agroforestry systems. The Climate Stewardship Act aims to increase the financial incentives for silvopasture systems in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. And the Agriculture Resilience Act seeks to increase funding for the Grazing Lands Conservation Coalition, in addition to establishing regional agroforestry centers. 

In truth, we are just beginning to see the potential for silvopasture to curb emissions while improving agricultural productivity and diversity. Despite the uphill battle, it is possible to grow the practice by providing farmers and ranchers with resources on how it functions in different climates with different combinations of trees and animals. Even though silvopasture is not a panacea, it is an opportunity for trees, animals, and forages to work in harmony to regenerate soil and create financially viable farms. 

Watch: The Pollinators follow commercial beekeepers and their truckloads of honey bees as they travel from farm to orchard across the United States. In the age of agricultural industrialization, it is easy to forget that our nation’s food system still depends on honey bees to pollinate the crops that yield the fruit, nuts, and vegetables we all eat. Along the way, the documentary features the voices of real farmers, scientists, chefs, and academics to give a unique perspective about the threats to honey bees, the flaws in our chemically dependent agriculture system, and how we can work to improve it. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime, AppleTV, GooglePlay, and more. For additional information about how to get involved, please check The Pollinator’s resources page