It comes as a surprise to learn that the 9th most-effective strategy for mitigating climate change[i] according to the Drawdown organization is something as obscure as silvopasture.

From the Latin silva (‘forest’) and pastura (‘grazing’), silvopasture at its simplest is the integration of livestock and forest, creating a symbiotic system[ii] that can increase meat and dairy yields, encourage biodiversity[iii], improve water quality[iv], and be more economically successful — all the while storing far more carbon in both trees and soil[v] than conventional livestock pastures.

 

Since raising livestock takes up more land than any other kind of agriculture[vi] and comprises as much as 20% of global emissions[vii], increasing the amount of silvopastoral land should be a top priority. Let’s learn more about this obscure but important practice.

The Basics of Silvopasture

 

The USDA considers silvopasture one of five main practices in agroforestry, defined as any land that intentionally combines farming and forest systems[viii]. (The other four[ix] are windbreaks, riparian (riverbank) buffers, alley cropping and forest farming.) The agency defines silvopastures itself[x] as “intentional combinations of trees with livestock which involve intensive management of the interactions between the components as an integrated agroecosystem.”

 

Effectively mimicking the conditions of savannas[xi] — grasslands with sparse tree canopies that grow between prairies and forests — silvopastures currently comprise only about 15% of all global grazing land[xii], or approximately 350 million acres[xiii]. Were silvopastural land to grow to 554 million acres by 2050, it could reduce CO2 emissions by 31.2 gigatons[xiv].

Silvopasture is so good for the environment because it both prevents trees from being razed for grazing — thus ensuring that carbon stores aren’t lost — and absorbs existing carbon at much higher rates than conventional grassland. A 2017 meta-analysis[xv] found that converting conventional agricultural land to silvopasture can increase the amount of carbon absorbed through the soil by 34% on average[xvi].

 

It’s also good for farmers’ bottom line: researchers found that shade increases milk and meat production[xvii], and farmers also can generate income year-round with silvopasture by selling lumber, nuts, and other products[xviii] the trees produce.

Establishing silvopastoral land has its challenges, however. Not all land is suitable[xix], and there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula[xx], since every location has its own soil composition and plant species. Moreover, it tends to have high implementation costs.

 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, however, is ignorance. Of the $330 billion the U.N. dedicated to climate change mitigation in 2013, only 2% went to agricultural initiatives [xxi]. Silvopasture is most popular in places that do not get a lot of attention for their agricultural practices, particularly Central and South America, where a whopping 90% of Costa Rican pastures have trees[xxii].

 

That is slowly changing, however. In 2012, then-director of the National Agroforestry Center (NAC) Andy Mason noted that only 5200 acres in the U.S. were dedicated to silvopasture. Through increased grants[xxiii] and attention given to successful[xxiv] silvopastoral[xxv] farms[xxvi], knowledge of and appreciation for silvopastures are certain to grow.

[i] Drawdown, 50-51.

[ii] Ibid, 50.

[iii] https://nfu.org/2017/02/06/what-can-farmers-do-about-climate-change-silvopasture/

[iv] https://mosesorganic.org/silvopasture/

[v] Drawdown, 50.

[vi] http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf

[vii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/05/30/carbon-farming/?utm_term=.97d6913430ca

[viii] https://www.usda.gov/topics/forestry/agroforestry

[ix] https://www.wiscontext.org/theres-more-silvopasture-just-cows-and-trees

[x] https://mosesorganic.org/silvopasture/

[xi] https://www.britannica.com/science/savanna

[xii] https://civileats.com/2019/01/07/silvopasture-can-mitigate-climate-change-will-u-s-farmers-take-it-seriously/

[xiii] Drawdown, 51.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10457-017-0147-9

[xvi] https://www.futurity.org/agroforestry-climate-change-1675682/

[xvii] http://bft.cirad.fr/cd/BFT_316_3-16.pdf

[xviii] https://cefs.ncsu.edu/silvopasture-getting-closer-look-in-southeast/

[xix] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/05/30/carbon-farming/?utm_term=.97d6913430ca

[xx] https://civileats.com/2019/01/07/silvopasture-can-mitigate-climate-change-will-u-s-farmers-take-it-seriously/

[xxi] https://civileats.com/2016/03/16/how-carbon-farming-reverse-climate-change-eric-toensmeier/

[xxii] http://bft.cirad.fr/cd/BFT_316_3-16.pdf

[xxiii] https://nifa.usda.gov/funding-opportunity/beginning-farmer-and-rancher-development-program-bfrdp

[xxiv] https://www.thegoodlifefarm.org/about-our-farm

[xxv] https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/nc-choices/

[xxvi] https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/02/25/silvopasture-adding-little-forest-farm