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Redefining Pastures


So when I resolved to start blogging weekly this year I sketched out a couple of ideas to have ahead in case I was short on time or short on ideas. One of the topics that I had in mind was to discuss what I thought to be a new and rather unorthodox plan for pasturing our cattle this upcoming grazing season. I was planning on writing about how we have spent fifteen years trying to create more open fields for pasture and how much work it has been cutting trees and allowing stumps to rot down for easier removal and how much time has been spent moving cows about to keep down the brush that seems to spring up like wildfire. I was going to write about how maybe open field grazing is just plain overrated and how we once lost four finishing beef cattle to a lightening strike when they chose to lay under a stand of trees in our open pasture. I was also going to add that despite three years of intensive management and rotational grazing, the partially wooded areas where our cattle were allowed far outperformed our open pasture which experienced little to no growth during resting periods; no doubt thanks to the drought conditions we experienced last year. I was planning on saying that I'm just over it for so many reasons. On the flip side, about ten years ago we had a forester come to our property and we had a section clear cut behind our house. We fenced that area for the cows so that the trees would not have a chance to regrow. The cows successfully kept down everything *except for baby fir trees whose needles were not very palatable. Those trees exploded in growth. Not only were they fertilized by the cows but any future competition was promptly gobbled up. At first it seemed like an incredible inconvenience because they overtook the area that we had so hoped would become a productive pasture. Three years ago we began making Christmas wreaths and it has become one of the most successful ventures on our farm. That little one and a half acre piece of land became the happy accident that is now responsible for producing almost fifty percent of our annual revenue. So to bring my thoughts together, this is my new plan. Any open pasture land will become hay fields and the partially wooded areas where we grow firs for boughs will be rotationally grazed as our only feed source during summer. I thought this was a semi-crazy plan because everyone knows you need fields not forests for grazing animals right? Well, earlier this week I was helping to fill out the yearly agricultural census and it asked if we practiced intensive management of grazing pastures or rotational grazing so I checked yes. Then it asked if we practiced "silvopaturing" or other forms of "agroforestry". I had to look up those terms because I had never heard of them. It turns out that my "new pasture plan" is actually silvopasture! The name comes from a combination of the Latin name for forest "Silva" and the Latin name for feeding or grazing which is "Pastura". The term is defined as the practice of integrating trees, forage, and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way. It is also classified as one of the distinct forms of agroforestry. Through research I have found some controversy surrounding the term saying that Europeans have implemented such practices for hundreds to thousands of years, namely grazing in orchards and vineyards, and that Americans only put a name on it and pretend that it's a brand new concept. Regardless of who's idea it was I'm beyond excited that there is a term for this form of management because with the term I can research and see other farmers using silvopasturing on their operations. Now it's not simply allowing the cows to graze in the woods or using them to try and convert woods to pasture as we have been doing in the past but instead allowing the woods to stay largely as it is but selectively thinning what we don't want and growing what we need for production (in our case firs and pines for wreath making, maples for sugaring, fruit trees such as crab apple, and select hardwoods for firewood and lumber; then allowing grass to grow beneath. With benefits like better control of ground erosion, greater drought resistance, shade and storm shelter for animals, and the ability to produce feed for the animals and revenue generating crops on the same acreage; it's hard not to get excited (especially when you love the woods and the ecosystems that flourishes within it) There is more research to be done such as possible disadvantages with pest control and greater attention spent to eliminate potentially poisonous plants from the grazing site but there is plenty of time before the season arrives!

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