It’s not weird, it’s crazy: farmers graze cows in thickets of trees

MYERSTOWN, PA – October ended on Nelson Martin’s dairy farm like a real fall, with windswept rains and the thermostat stuck in the 1940s as the first northeast of the season was turning.

But a better picture awaits you next spring: cows gnaw the grass under rows of blossoming apple trees.

Farmers like Martin are turning away from the idea that cows should graze in the open field. It takes an old practice that puts livestock and trees in the same space – and it can help reduce pollution in Chesapeake Bay and sequester carbon while it’s there. With help from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a research grant from the Department of Agriculture, Martin’s has planted dozens of apple trees and plans to venture into Chinese chestnut trees as well, turning 20 or more acres into thickets in dual purpose.

With grants from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the USDA, the foundation works with five farms in south-central Pennsylvania to plant trees in the pastures, a practice called silvopasture. With around $ 80,000 in grants, the nonprofit takes three years to plant trees and start measuring results – although the benefits would increase in subsequent years, organizers said.

Martin, 44, admitted to having trouble convincing his neighbors or his father, from whom he buys the family farm, to sign the concept. Further afield, a neighbor extends to 300 cows in a conventional manner, bringing them indoors to eat formulated grain rations, he said.

“It sounds pretty strange,” said Martin, who only keeps 30 dairy cows at a time and is licensed to produce, bottle and sell unpasteurized milk. But he sticks to the plan. “While we are talking about this farm, we always seem to come back to more trees.”

“Old practice”

Martin takes care of an apple tree on his dairy farm. He is gradually planting fruit trees on his pastures, which will one day provide cows with a shady place to graze and help reduce runoff in Chesapeake Bay. | Marc Heller / E&E News

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation oversaw the planting of 1,500 trees on the five farms, in plots of 120 each. Organizers believe fields with a mixture of grass and trees will send less runoff into the Chesapeake Watershed and provide healthier manure-fed grass and trees that cows drop.

“It is considered old practice,” said project leader Molly Cheatum, citing a long history in other countries. But with the advent of industrialized agriculture, monoculture appeared, that is, putting the same crops on the same fields year after year.

“Now we realize that maybe it wasn’t the best thing because nature thrives on diversity,” Cheatum said.

Despite its tradition – Spanish farmers have long let pigs eat acorns under oaks, for example – sylvopasture has not made its way to the United States or has not been widely studied here. Federal agriculture officials in Pennsylvania were skeptical, Cheatum said, when she and Austin Unruh, a conservation consultant, first raised the idea and sought funding.

This is part of a larger set of practices called agroforestry that combine food production with trees. Advocates say it could help fight climate change by encouraging both tree planting and less intensive animal husbandry.

“Research suggests that silvopasture goes far beyond any grassland technique to counter livestock methane emissions and under-hoof carbon sequestration,” said Project Drawdown, a San Francisco band inspired by the 2017 bestselling book. “Drawdown” by Paul Hawken, on his website. “Pastures dotted with or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times more carbon than those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil.”

From raw milk to fruit trees

Cows at Myerstown, Pa., Farm.
Martin loops a section of pasture on his farm, where he moves cows from one plot to another during the season. He says he may soon be planting trees in this section. | Marc Heller / E&E News

Martin was already somewhat of a pioneer in agriculture when he started planting apple trees in his pastures in 2018. Several years earlier he had joined the movement to produce raw, unpasteurized milk, a slow trend to win but the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has approved for about 200 farms. He also leaves the horns of his cows burning – a rarity among dairy farmers who fear injury or injury.

The apple trees are now well above his head, protected by white plastic tubes and barbed wire around the trunks that prevent the cows from chewing. The grass, a variety of fescue, grows in 8- or 10-inch clumps with the occasional squash plant interspersed; cows gladly eat squash, he said, proving the point by sticking a small pumpkin in front of a Holstein who quickly took the hook.

Martin admitted that he was not like most dairy farmers. He does not sell his milk to a dairy company like Nestlé SA or Kraft Foods Group. He doesn’t use a lot of farm chemicals, and he doesn’t confine his cows to a barn like most farmers. “The cows have to graze outside,” he said.

It also has significantly fewer cattle than the average dairy farm, which has about 89 cows in Pennsylvania, according to the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence. He can’t live on milk alone, Martin said, which explains the appeal of growing apples and nuts. Martin even planted dogwoods near the creek – the red twigs make lovely decorations for the house.

“They go well with pumpkins,” said Unruh, whose consulting firm, Crow and Berry Land Management, selects the trees for the project.

Forest Service researchers are also studying silvopasture. The agency has a national agroforestry center, created after the agricultural law of 1990, devoted to research and promotion of combinations of forestry and food production. They focus mainly on private land, although some national forests have considered the idea, the researchers told E&E News, and there is interest in extending the concept to evergreen forests in the West and South. -East.

The Department of Agriculture has encouraged agroforestry in the past. During his first stint as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack approved in 2013 a departmental rule related to the practice.

Forest Service researchers have just completed an analysis of silvopastoral practices, said Matt Smith, head of the centre’s research program. Analysis showed that most producers graze cattle, although some have ventured into goats or ducks. Pigs are risky because of the damage they can inflict on trees, Smith said. “You just have to keep an eye on them.”

The vast majority of producers also use rotational grazing, a practice preferred by sustainable farming groups because it takes better care of the soil and allows the grass to regrow.

Researchers will soon have a new wealth of useful information, Smith said. The center is working with the National Agricultural Statistics Service on the producer survey. Completed in January, it will shed light on who uses agroforestry, how and where, broken down by state.

Back at his farm in Pennsylvania, Martin stood up against the wind and drizzle and reflected on his new take on the dairy industry, compared to his friend, who is on the verge of going from 80 milkers to 300. .

“He’s a good farmer. Best wishes to him,” Martin said. “It is not me.”