Farmers from Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan and Illinois joined in the opportunity to see firsthand a project that seeks to demonstrate the feasibility and profitability of combining trees, forage crops and livestock.
The silvopasture farm is managed by fifth-generation farmer Geoff King. Due to some health issues, King was unable to be at the farm for the tour, but visitors walked among the trees and pasture where the family grazes about 100 ewes under the protective eye of a llama.
The farm is owned by second-generation cousins of King. One of those cousins, Jennifer King of Arizona, came back to Wisconsin to help with the management of the sheep. She was on hand at the event to talk about the family business.
Jennifer explained that the area had at one time included numerous family farms, but during the depression years and drought of the 1930s, many families lost their farms because the soil was thin and unproductive in the dry conditions. That’s when the state turned the land into the state forest.
Diverse income stream
Prior to starting the agroforestry demonstration project back in the 1990s, King was already supplementing his income from sheep grazing and forage operation by producing firewood and maple syrup from the mixed hardwood woodlots on his 200-acre farm. Located next to the Kettle Moraine Forest, the firewood business has been a good venture since campers are no longer allowed to transport firewood to their campsites.
During the workshop at the farm, Keefe Keeley of the Savanna Institute described the farm that includes a forestry enterprise that helps to stabilize per-acre income and benefit whole-farm profitability.
Keeley described the silvopastoral system, noting that when the family started the project, they planted trees on 3 acres of an existing mature pasture. Hybrid poplar cuttings and red oak seedlings were planted in rows 40 feet apart at about 100 trees per acre; three poplars were planted for each oak. Tube shelters protected the trees from animal damage in the beginning to improve growing conditions.
In this system, pasture crops have provided short term income, while tree crops of different rotation lengths will yield medium and long-term returns. Forage is either grazed or mechanically harvested each year.
King thins the poplars each year to sell as firewood. Gradually removing the poplars leaves about 30 red oaks per acre to grow on a longer rotation for a high-value timber crop. The fast-growing straight poplars also help to train the slower-growing oaks to grow straight.
Keeley explained the benefits of this system, saying the trees tend to increase retained snow cover, thereby adding moisture to the soil. They also reduce moisture stress on forage crops during the midseason heat by providing partial shading. The trees also provide shade for livestock grazing between them.
By wide spacing and then thinning, the goal was to create a uniform canopy of oaks to improve growing conditions for the forage crops and thereby to increase forage yields in the second and third cuttings. Trees and perennial pastures also reduce the potential for soil erosion on his hillsides.
Keeley also described how livestock enjoy eating leaves along with the forages.
“When they hear the chainsaw, they come running because they know there will be leaves to eat on branches that have fallen,” he said.
Besides establishing the trees in pasture areas, the family also created pasture areas in the wooded acreage on their farm. They thinned the wooded area by transplanting maple saplings to a pasture area and cleaned out the underbrush and thinned trees in the wooded area to establish forages.
As a result of this work, the family has created a third income stream from tapping the maple trees and marketing syrup. Clearing the underbrush in the woods made it easier for the family to run their syrup lines from tree to tree to collect the sap.
By establishing a forage crop in existing wooded acres, the family created additional grazing paddocks that added flexibility to their rotational grazing and provided benefit to livestock in reducing weather-related stress from heat and wind.
Jerold Berg, a family friend and long-time grazier, told the gathering, “They didn’t just put livestock in the woods. It’s intensively managed and integrated, so it all functions as one unit.”
Rotating sheep from one paddock to the next reduces the potential for tree damage and also lessens their impact on the pasture.