CAVALIER, N.D. — This is a story about a term and agricultural practice — silvopasture — that you’re probably never heard of. But if you like trees or livestock, or want to better protect pasture for future generations, keep reading.

Chase Furstenau, a Cavalier rancher, cares about all three things. And so he’s interested in silvopasture, a largely unknown but starting-to-gain-traction ag practice that emphasizes incorporating trees into pasture to benefit both.

“Though I don’t know much about it (silvopasture), it seems like it could be really useful,” said Furstenau, who hasn’t consciously adopted silvopasture principles but whose wooded pastures already provide benefits to cattle.

“Almost all my pastures fit the bill of silvopastures. All year round, those trees are important to the cattle,” he said.

One example: His ranch received 20 to 27 inches of snow during the mid-October blizzard. Trees in the pastures helped shelter his cattle during the terrible weather.

Though few Upper Midwest agriculturalists are likely to have heard of silvopasture, the concept is drawing increasing intention, in part because of support from the University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, among other organizations.

“I really believe in my heart that this (silvopasture) has a bright future,” said Diomy Zamora, University of Minnesota Extension educator who focuses on agroforestry and biomass energy.

There’s a potential comparison of silvopasture to cover crops — the latter an agricultural practice that once was on the fringe on mainstream ag but in recent years became widely accepted and practiced by Upper Midwest farmers. Silvopasture could be in the early stages of what happened with cover crops.

Don’t take the comparison too far, however, said Diane Mayerfeld, sustainable agriculture coordinator with University of Wisconsin Extension. She has considerable experience with silvopasture and is working on a doctorate that focuses on it.

“Much more commitment is needed with silvopasture,” and benefits from it are much slower to achieve, she said.

Definition, benefits

Here’s a definition of silvopasture — the term derives from silva, the Latin word for “forest” or “woodland” — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center:

“Silvopasture is the deliberate integration of trees and grazing livestock operations on the same land. … Well-managed silvopastures employ agronomic principles, typically including introduced or native pasture grasses, fertilization and nitrogen-fixing legumes and rotational grazing systems that employ short grazing periods which maximize vegetative plant growth and harvest,” the USDA agency says.

Silvopasture can be created either through planting in fields that have few, if any, trees or by thinning trees on heavily wooded land that’s not pastured, Zamora said.

Anyone interested in establishing silvopasture through planting should do research to select the best variety of trees for that pasture, he said.

A wide range of livestock can benefit, though cattle are the chief beneficiaries in the Upper Midwest, experts say.

They also cite these potential benefits:

  • Trees provide shelter that decreases livestock stress, improves animal health, increases feeding efficiency and promotes uniform grazing in a pasture.

  • Forage grown in shade and protected from high winds is richer in protein, lower in fiber and more digestible for livestock compared to forage grown in open pasture.

  • Better control of erosion and weeds.

  • Sale of lumber or tree products.

Potential downsides of establishing silvopasture include costs associated with the following:

  • Planting or thinning trees.

  • Forage seed.

  • Planting labor.

  • The need for greater fencing and water facilities.

  • Temporarily removing pasture from use while trees are planted and become established.

And it’s essential to understand that livestock grazing in silvopasture must be monitored carefully and moved to other pastures as soon as appropriate, Mayerfeld said.

She and other experts say silvopasture fits into rotational grazing, as opposed to continuous grazing. The former is the ag practice that regularly rotates livestock among pastures or fenced sections of one pasture to maintain healthy, nutritious forage,

‘Not for everyone’

Silvopasture naturally holds particular promise in areas that are heavily wooded or well-suited to planting trees, Mayerfeld said

She’s uncertain if silvopasture will ever catch on in a big way in areas — such as the western Dakotas and eastern Montana — where trees are relatively rare.

Wherever a rancher lives, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in his or her state is a good starting place for information on silvopasture, including possible grants or funding to help establish it, Mayerfeld said.

Anyone interested in silvopasture needs to realize that the practice requires a major commitment of time and effort, she said.

“It’s not something you jump in and out of,” Mayerfeld. “It’s not for everyone.”