Made in the Shade – Using Silvopasture Research and On-farm Demonstrations to Advance These Sustainable Agroforestry Systems

Project Overview

LS13-255
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $190,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2017
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Animal Production: animal protection and health, feed/forage, grazing management, rangeland/pasture management
  • Crop Production: agroforestry, silvopasture
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems

    Abstract:

    The purpose of the “Made in the shade” project was to research and demonstrate the intentional integration of trees and forage-livestock systems in the agroforestry practice known as silvopasture. Silvopasture systems offer tremendous opportunities to improve resource management; increase output and diversity in both woodland and pasture settings; provide multiple conservation services; generate additional short- and long-term economic returns; and enhance aesthetic appeal of farmlands.  The project made significant strides to promote sustainable silvopasture systems in the mid-Atlantic, helping establish the region as a test-bed for new silvopasture research and a leader in demonstration and outreach efforts.

    This project was conducted to address increasing requests from land owners for information and to begin tearing down key roadblocks to adoption. These include limited data on producer perceptions, system productivity, and economic outputs, and a lack of practical guidelines for establishment and maintenance. Greater effort has been needed to demonstrate and extend information about these systems, which are unfamiliar to most producers and technical service providers.

    Surveys of limited resource landowners were conducted during the course of the grant suggest that producers are more aware of environmental issues than their agents and that they view silvopasture favorably, but they have a number of questions surrounding system utility or viability. Research and demonstration sites were prepared or established at three new locations and experiences from these efforts have been informative and will provide a basis for future plantings and management recommendations. Data generated showed the success of growing forages in moderate (between 25 and 50%) shade environments. Species differences were clear and weed abundance at establishment were lower in shaded environments. This research has management implications relative to forage botanical composition, nutritive value, and yield of complex cool season forage mixtures and will inform our recommendations.

    Animal performance and behavioral studies demonstrated the over-yielding effects of silvopastures. This management practice can provide similar production to open pastures with the added benefit of trees – as long as shading is not excessive. These studies, conducted in the relatively mild temperate conditions of Virginia’s Ridge/Valley Physiographic region and using sheep, a heat tolerant animal, suggest that silvopastures will likely have even greater potential as a management practice for use with cattle in the hotter regions of the South.

    Producer collaboration has been central to demonstrate practices and encourage adoption and they have played a key role in educational efforts. Site visits, field days, conference tours, and NRCS training sessions were among the many methods used to engage producers and technical service providers. Producers also volunteered their time to participate in a forage course , reaching over 100 students in the past three years. In future, we hope to make videos of farmers and farms to give them a larger platform and broader audience for discussing silvopastures in general and their efforts in particular.

    The Made in the Shade grant has had a broad impact on our capacity to research and promote silvopasture systems into the future. Both a PhD and an MS student completed their degrees on this project and made multiple presentations in the field and at national meetings. One now is employed as a faculty member and working to develop additional silvopasture research and outreach programming. This program also engaged undergraduate and high school students.  All these interactions represent opportunities to shape opinions and efforts of future leaders and scientists.

    As work progressed, challenges due to changes in personnel and limits in the available data on hardwood fodder systems encouraged us to alter our plans. Thus, we began to explore the economics of developing pine-based silvopastures. A few versions of enterprise budgets have been created, but we are continuing to refine and debate these models and likely will make them public in a limited manner for the time being.

    Efforts to create software that would allow us to put these systems before more people are in process. The current version allows us to “grow” trees but is tied to a specific site. Our vision of developing an app to grow trees on a producer’s “virtual” farm will require greater resources to make this a truly useful tool.

    Three extension articles on silvopastures have been developed. Two currently are available from Virginia Tech’s silvopasture website: https://ext.vt.edu/agriculture/silvopasture.html ; the third is in post-production will be available soon. These originally were developed as a series of popular press articles that allowed us to reach a wider audience and to hone and refine our message for the extension publications. We have also developed curriculum for a high school, provided radio and web interviews, spoken and presented at multiple conferences regionally, nationally, and internationally. SARE support has helped us establish a beachhead for future research, training and demonstration efforts and is making it possible for people to learn the benefits of temperate silvopasture systems.

     

    Project objectives:

    Given these conditions, our project objectives included:

    1 – Create and use surveys to study adoption of silvopasture practices among producers and technical service providers. Data generated from survey responses will be used to develop outreach programs.

    2 – Determine suitable forage establishment practices for “forest to silvopasture” establishment; and, trees establishment practices for success of hardwood-based “trees into pastures” silvopastures;

    3 – Quantify animal and pasture productivity in ~20-year-old, deciduous silvopastures; and,

    4 – Couple the establishment information with tree, forage, and livestock production data to estimate the economic value of silvopasture systems

    5 – Use research center and on-farm field days to showcase silvopasture management practices and partner with beginning and small farmer and environmental networks and technical services providers to promote these sustainable systems.

    6 – Develop web-based delivery tools to disseminate technical and budgeting information to producer and agency communities and create an application that can model developing silvopastures for producers on their farms.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.