6/15/2013 7:00 AM
By Tabitha Goodling Central Pa. Correspondent
McVEYTOWN, Pa. — Mike Wahler of McVeytown is thinking about putting his beef cattle in the woods.
Wahler served as host for a field day on silvopasturing at his farm earlier this month, sponsored by the Mifflin County Conservation District.
Silvopasturing is defined as the sustainable production of timber, forages and livestock on the same land.
Brett Chedzoy, a forester from Cooperative Extension at Cornell University, led the field day at Wahler’s 350-acre beef farm in Mifflin County.
“I have about 40 acres with potential for silvopasturing,” Wahler said, adding that this now-wooded land had once been pasture decades earlier from a previous farm.
“You can still see the old fence posts,” he said.
Chedzoy pointed out there was a time when making woodland a pasture was unthinkable. This was after World War II, when farmers began putting livestock in the woods unmanaged.
The result was “beat up lawn and pasture, and it took its toll on the health of the trees,” Chedzoy said. But silvopasturing can help farmers “get more value out of their land and more utilization.”
Chedzoy passed out a document he created on the topic called “Silvopasturing in the Northeast.”
“Silvopasturing differs from woodlot grazing of the past in that the frequency and intensity of the grazing is controlled to achieve the desired objectives,” the document said.
“New fencing systems, a better understanding of animal behavior and the evolution of management intensive grazing’ practices have enabled us to gain the necessary level of control over livestock to achieve positive impacts from silvopasturing,” it said.
Wahler had attended a seminar on the topic that Chedzoy put on a few years ago and recently agreed to allow his farm be a field day site.
Chedzoy and Peter Smallidge, also of Cornell, took the group of 20 to 30 farmers and foresters into the woodlands to examine the grounds and discuss the site quality.
Silvopasturing, the Cornell representatives said, are only “as good as the quality and quantity of food that is available for livestock.”
Three keys to establishing silvopastures are to reduce density to allow adequate sunlight to reach the ground level, meet germination requirements of the target species and manage the system to encourage the growth of desirable vegetation once established, according the Cornell-based document “A Framework for Successful Planning and Implemention of Silvopasture Projects.”
Wahler told the attendees that his forest area needs to be maintained regularly. During a two-year period of unmanaged vegetation, he said, the area grew up extensively.
“If I don’t get back there and keep up with it, it’s like shoveling against the tide,” he said.
Those who participated in the field day examined the land’s accessibility to equipment and livestock, site quality of soil type and drainage, erosion concerns, potential hazards, “fenceability,” availability of water for livestock, size and shape of the land, and the possibility of alternative locations.
They also looked at existing timber resources and existing understory vegetation.
Chedzoy described the studies done on the field day.
The first was to evaluate the potential of the site for silvopasturing. The group came to the consensus that the site was generally suitable. The second was an implementation’ exercise to determine which trees should be thinned to create suitable conditions for forage growth beneath the trees.
Chedzoy noted that there are two points that are understood in silvopasturing and most people grasp one or the other. People either understand the necessities of grazing or the science of silviculture, depending on whether they’re farmers or foresters.
Chedzoy also presented a document that examines three case studies of farms in other parts of the country that tried silvopasturing as presented at the Northeast Silvopasture Conference in 2011 in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
The impact of shade on livestock weight gain showed increases during late spring and early summer — cows gained 1.25 pounds per day, calves gained 0.41 pounds and steers 0.89 pounds.
The case studies also revealed that dairy cows provided with shade produced 10 to 19 percent more milk than nonshaded cows. Conception rates were also higher — 44.4 percent for shaded cows compared with 25.3 percent for unshaded.
Statistics may still leave farmers and foresters skeptical, Chedzoy said.
Chedzoy uses silvopasturing at his Watkins Glen farm in New York, and he said most farms in New York and Pennsylvania that use silvopasturing are owned by foresters like him.
“To date, I’m only aware of four practitioners in the New York and Pennsylvania area,” he said, though there are surely some others out there. “All four are foresters, who are also livestock farmers.
“This dual background and comfort’ with both halves of the equation has allowed them to manage their land to grow both their best timber, while at the same time producing quality pasture for their animals,” he said.
“I don’t feel that graziers have to be experts in silviculture to be successful in silvopasture management because they can draw upon the expertise of foresters to help manage the timber resource,” Chedzoy said. “But at a minimum, it’s important for silvopasture practitioners — I call them silvopastoralists — to have a basic knowledge of forestry principals.”
Wahler is still undecided as to what he will do.
“I’m looking at this from the standpoint of learning,” he said, “I’m not a forester. I just want to learn.”
He said his intention now is to work with the service forester and start talking with loggers about the market.
“I suspect I will do it, but I will ease into it,” Wahler said.