By CAROLINE MILER
Capital News Service
LANSING – Growing crops, trees and livestock on the same land could help farmers battle climate change.
This technique is called silvopasture and it creates an environment that captures carbon responsible for global warming. It improves soil and combats erosion.
The main contributor to climate changes is the release carbon dioxide, which warms the environment.
Silvopasture manages forages and forests on the same land. It takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returns it to the soil, according to Monica Jean, a Michigan State University Extension field crop educator, who is based in Clinton County.
“Naturally, farming already does draw down carbon some, because we are going through photosynthesis, so carbon is coming into those plants,” Jean said. “But a sink would be where you’re actually taking that carbon and putting it back into the soil so that there is a negative.”
Jean said that silvopasture is possible if it is managed properly.
MSU Extension has been working closely with farmers throughout the state to optimize them through an environmental lens.
“Over the 30 years that I’ve been observing and involved in silvopasturing, I’ve never really experienced a downside to it,” said Brett Chedzoy, the regional forester for Cornell University Cooperative Extension.
Chedzoy, who worked with MSU Extension has captured carbon using silvopasture on the land he owns for more than ten years.
“Simply put, we’re growing more biomass per acre in a silvopasture than a treeless pasture or a woods,” Chedzoy said. “So we’re both capturing and storing more carbon per acre.”
Chedzoy stated that his first experience with silvopasturing came in the Peace Corps in central Argentina, 30 years ago. He saw how silvopasturing can limit erosion.
“This is an area where it rains 40 inches a year, about the same as Michigan or New York, and much of that rain comes during the summer months in the form of intensive storms,” Chedzoy said.
“Historically, this mountainous landscape was very prone to flash flooding because the rain would hit this treeless landscape, and often an overgrazed landscape, and instead of infiltrating into the soil, it would just run off and cause flash flooding and along with it erosion and other issues,” he said.
He explained that trees he had planted intercept a lot more of the rainfall and allow it infiltrate the ground rather than run off.
“That’s just one environmental benefit of having the trees there,” Chedzoy said.
Not only is silvopasture creating carbon sinks – and preventing flash floods and runoff – it’s also benefiting the soil.
“The trees are adding a tremendous amount of organic matter to the soil, which further helps improve the soil health and the ability of that soil to absorb rainfall,” Chedzoy said.
JNelson Farms is a Midland County farm that has been working with MSU Extension and has had success using silvopasture.
Jon Nelson, the farm’s manager and owner, introduced silvopasture to the farm in the spring 2018. He stated that silvopasture was one of the most important improvements in water and nutrient cycling. This has led to improved soil health as well as carbon sequestration.
“We’ve been able to hold water better and go through larger rains,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he believes silvopasture is a great solution to climate change and he hasn’t had any problems with it.
“I think it’s a practice that could substantially increase forestry and our situation,” Nelson said.
Even though JNelson Farms hasn’t experienced any drawbacks, Chedzoy said there are limitations to managing silvopasture.
“Our biggest challenge, and this is probably true of nearly all farms, is time,” he said. “It requires more management, and it requires going out and doing new things that can be quite labor intensive.”
He suggested that hiring others to do the work would help overcome this problem, such as a logging crew or consulting foremen. But it’s not easy to find the best people to do the job.
“Silvopasturing is something that requires more than the status quo of skill and management inputs,” Chedzoy said.
Jean, the field crop educator, stated that silvopasture must not be used on wooded ground, which not all farms have, and must be properly managed.
“You don’t want to damage the trees. That’s one of the main issues is this long-term compaction problem, so you do need to be careful, and you need to manage it well,” Jean said.
When livestock isn’t intensively managed in a silvopasture system, excessive activity from the animals around the root zone can cause soil to compact, damaging root zones, she said.
Jean said that if a farm doesn’t have a wooded area to implement silvopasture, then it can get costly to plant the trees needed for the system to work.
Chedzoy stated, despite these limitations, that he believes that any grazer could learn good silvopasturing techniques management. It all comes down, however, to whether the farmer is willing or unable to make the commitment.
Caroline Miller writes for Great Lakes Echo.