A pasture usually ends where a forest begins, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Some landowners are utilizing a system called silvopasture that combines trees, forage and livestock on the same piece of land. The cows may wander into the trees, but they won’t get lost there.
Silvopasture — a component of agro foresty which combines agriculture and forestry— is often touted for its benefits to both the landowner and the environment. It allows for the sale of timber and livestock from the same piece of land, providing long-term income from timber sales and short-term cash flow from forage and livestock. It’s also been found to increase the land’s biological diversity and protect its water quality and water-holding capacity by reducing soil erosion.
A study by Louisana State University on silvopasture systems showed a 12-1 return on investments over a 20-year period compared to a 6-4 return on pasture alone and an 8-5 return on timber. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has incorporated silvoculture practices into its programs, and research is being done on every aspect of silvopasture at several universities. In Texas, researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches are studying the effects of silvopasture management on soil quality and ecology and its impact on earthworms.
Eric Taylor, a forestry specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension in Overton, said silvopasture systems are not very common in Texas, partly because of low prices for pulpwood. He said timber sales are directly related to housing starts, which are still down. He added that another reason there aren’t a lot of silvopasture systems in the state is that the practice has not been widely touted here.
“There are some disadvantages, but there are also a lot of advantages,” Taylor said. “One of the biggest advantages is the aesthetics. You get some benefits if you’re managing for wildlife, which likes a lot of edges and corridors. The number of cattle is usually less, but they get some shade and forage.”
The Texas Forest Service estimates that there are 13 million acres of forest in Texas and nearly half a million private owners of forest land. A silvopasture can be established in a pine forest if enough trees are thinned or removed to improve the canopy, or trees can be planted in an existing pasture. It requires some additional management since trees and livestock both are expected to prosper and multiply. And if trees are planted, it’s going to be 20 to 25 years before those trees are ready to sell as timber.
Ross Brown, a rancher and NRCS district conservationist in Marshall, utilizes silvopastures on his Harrison County ranch.
“We have always focused on forage, forest, and wildlife management,” Brown said in an interview two years ago. “Silvopasture gives us the ability to do this on the same acreage. The bottom line for us is increased economic performance per acre.”
Brown said the trees protect his cattle from heat in the summer but also offer protection from winter storms, which reduces the animal’s energy requirements and increases the ranch’s profit. He also sells timber from the same land.
Taylor said that most of the state’s timber sales are in East Texas but that other parts of the state could benefit from the practice.
“Parts of Central and West Texas are overthick and overdense,” he said. “The land has lost a key component — it has lost fire.”
He said a silvopasure is a good way to thin the trees, cut the risk of a cataclysmic fire, and have a timber and a livestock component to your operation at the same time.
“Silvopasure is underutilized here because there has not been a lot of push about how it works,” he said. "It has a lot of benefits, especially for hobbyists. The aesthetics and environmental resiliency it offers is generating some interest now. And it may increase more if we see an increase in the timber component.”