Getting cattle into the forest could help climate change, farmers and the livestock
Clear-cutting trees to make it easier to raise cattle in the Midwest eliminated much of the landscape known as Midwest Savanna, but an experimental farm south of Rolla is trying to prove that grazing animals in forests is better for the environment, farmers and the cows.
Midwest Savannas typically had many trees, but they were far apart, providing shade but also enough sunlight and space for native grasses to grow on the forest floor.
“That habitat was created intentionally by a lot of indigenous communities that lived here,” said Ashley Conway-Anderson, an agroforestry professor at the University of Missouri. “Intentionally managed with fire, and then once fire opened things up, what came next was grass and what came next was large grazing herbivores.”
Those herbivores were bison and elk 500 years ago, but Conway-Anderson said they could be cows today. She’s leading a multiyear study at the university’s Wurdak Extension and Education Center, about 30 miles southeast of Rolla, to first thin out the forest areas, get native grasses growing and bring in cows to graze.
When Europeans came to the Americas, it started a pattern of forests either being overplanted, unmanaged or clear-cut to make way for pastures or fields for crops.
The practice of returning to more natural efforts of grazing livestock in the forest is called silvopasture, and it's a very old way of raising animals.
While there isn’t anything new about the practice, Conway-Anderson’s research is getting more attention because healthy forests can be a critical part of combating climate change.
Trees are good at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and are also resilient in the face of extreme weather caused by climate change.
“When we do have floods, when we do have droughts and fires, it won’t be wholesale destruction. It will be able to recover much more quickly and maintain functionality longer when it experiences those inevitable challenges,” Conway-Anderson said.
Her goal is to get the data and create an example to help farmers move their cattle from open fields into forests.
It could be a short trip, she said, because so many want to, and some already are, like Iowa farmer Bruce Carney, who raises cattle on his family farm north of Des Moines.
More than 10 years ago he decided to convert 200 acres from corn and soybeans fields to land for cattle to graze.
“What I learned after seeding a crop farm down was that I needed trees. I needed windbreaks. I needed shade. I needed a living barn. To me, that’s what trees do for you,” Carney said.
Carney said trees make cows happier, healthier and bring in more money when they are sold. He is cited as a success story silvopasture development, but Carney eschews the label.
“I’m not a silvopasture expert,” Carney said, “I’m just a guy who planted trees. And I’d like to do more.”
The kind of research going on at the University of Missouri could help him and other farmers do that by developing best practices and plans to make forest grazing work.
Another benefit from the movement is that it can make small farms more viable by increasing the amount of money they bring in.
“By its very nature, silvopasture is intentional and intensive, so it allows for us to do more on one piece of land,” said Kaitie Adams, the Illinois Community Agroforester for the Wisconsin-based Savanna Institute.
“You can grow food like apples or walnuts, have a timber business and graze cattle all on one reasonably sized piece of land,” Adams said. “And with farm land prices skyrocketing, that makes it more possible for new, younger people to get into farming.”
There are a lot of challenges to making a go of having cattle graze in forests, including the time it takes for trees to grow, the inefficiency of raising cattle that graze as opposed to producing them in a factory farm, and the time and effort required to manage a forest properly.
Conway-Anderson and other advocates believe it’s worth it, and are optimistic that they can prove it.
“I want to get more people thinking about this as a viable possibility. Because even if everybody does this on 40 acres that they have, that’s a huge amount in Missouri alone that can add to this mosaic and help rebuild the tapestry of savanna landscape that once was here,” Conway-Anderson said.
Silvopasture proponents are also banking on the increased need for such measures, as climate change puts pressure on agriculture to come up with solutions in the coming years.
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This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM