Grazing for good: Silvopasture and carbon emissions

image of field

What if there was an ancient solution to one of the planet’s most pressing modern problems? A problem that’s been challenging us to rethink the way we live — and our role in protecting the world around us.

Enter silvopasture. It’s a form of agroforestry that combines the farming of livestock, trees and land management to sustain healthier soil and higher biodiversity and to reverse climate change through carbon sequestration.

Silvopasture may sound complex, but it’s actually quite simple. Silva is Latin for “forest,” and a pasture is an open, grassy space where livestock typically graze. Taken together (“forest” plus “pasture”), silvopasture refers to planting trees in existing pasture or establishing pasture in existing woodland.

So, where do we stand with carbon, and how do silvopasture systems come into play?

Much ado about carbon

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the global livestock sector currently emits an estimated 7.1 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has put sustainable cattle production at the forefront of the climate change discussion, challenging farmers worldwide to lower their carbon footprint while increasing productivity.

From integrating more renewable energy sources to decreasing the use of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to implementing agroecological and organic farming practices, more and more producers — both large and small — are doing their part to make our food system safer and more climate neutral.

One of the most promising strategies for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and decreasing carbon emissions in agriculture is silvopasture. Project Drawdown, a California-based think tank for climate solutions, says that silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. In fact, silvopasture land sequesters five to 10 times more carbon from the atmosphere than land of the same size that is treeless.

And with the carbon footprint of beef production continuing to raise concerns, the need for sustainable cattle production and responsible grazing is only continuing to grow.

Powered by nature

Imagine dozens of cows grazing comfortably among tall grass in a shaded woodland dotted with towering trees. At first glance, one may never guess as much, but this sight holds the potential to reforest our land and fight climate change.

As a subset of agroforestry, the concept of silvopasture — also known as carbon farming — is pretty straightforward. It’s based on a deep understanding of how animal and agricultural systems work together as part of a single ecosystem.

Essentially, silvopasture centers on alley cropping and the intentional rotation of large herds of livestock through dense intercroppings of grasses, trees and shrubs. When combined, our Earth’s unique natural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them serve as agricultural powerhouses with the potential to increase production and protect the planet.

Here’s a glimpse at the harmonious relationship between our land, our wildlife and our future:

  1. It’s no secret that livestock animals produce significant amounts of methane. However, both trees and soil can capture carbon — which make forests some of Earth’s most powerful natural weapons.
  2. When plants take in carbon dioxide, it’s photosynthesized. This sends carbon through their roots as sugars. There, living organisms, from arthropods to bacteria, turn it into stored carbon.
  3. While traditional crop and animal farming practices, like plowing and tilling, expose carbon to air, where it combines with oxygen to become CO2, silvopasture allows carbon to be stored and for wildlife to thrive.
  4. Bacteria and fungi bring together minerals in the earth with the carbon in sugars to create tiny aggregates with spaces that act as sponges between them. These small spaces are where water is held in times of drought.
  5. This creates a powerful ecosystem beneath our feet that’s rich with living organisms — and serves as the perfect environment for sequestering carbon for centuries to come. With about 25% of Earth’s carbon emissions having historically been captured by Earth’s forests, farms and grasslands, silvopasture can help sustain landscapes that are better vegetated with hydrated soil and that offer plenty of area for carbon capture and storage.

The benefits of silvopasture, however, go far beyond capturing and storing carbon.

  • Livestock: Trees protect animals from heat and cold, creating a sheltered microclimate that can improve forage quality, prolong seasons of growth and even lead to better-quality meat due to the lowering of variables that can increase stress in livestock. Many trees, as well as the fruits and nuts they bear, can also be eaten by livestock, which decreases the need for farmers to buy external feed for their stock.
  • Land: When animals graze, brushy species are controlled, which reduces the potential for fire hazards. In addition, some waste produced by animals is beneficial for plant growth, serving as a natural fertilizer and reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. Additionally, with high tree density comes improved soil health and moisture, which means less erosion and more resilient land over time. Silvopasture also increases biodiversity, creating a healthier habitat for the animals and organisms that inhabit the forest.
  • Prosperity: Livestock farmers who add timber or pine straw harvest into their forage production can produce more and, subsequently, increase their income more than those who practice grazing alone. Silvopasture also increases the agricultural productivity of each square foot of land, allowing farmers to get a greater return on their harvests.

Greener pastures, happier planet

These elements combined have made silvopasture one of the most effective agricultural production practices — not just for managing livestock farming, but for rebuilding healthier forests and reversing the impacts of climate change to prevent global warming as well.

Project Drawdown estimates that silvopasture is currently practiced on 351 million acres of land worldwide — but that’s not enough. If this number reached 554 million acres by 2050, the impact on global warming would be staggering. To be exact, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 31.19 gigatons.

So, how can animals, trees and farmers work together to regenerate our earth, our climate and, ultimately, our future? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; the needs of every region and every farmer will be different due to varying microclimates and access to resources, as well as their individual knowledge and skills. But with the proper research, training, investment and support, farmers can feed the world and its growing population, all while working together to meet challenging climate goals.

What if there was an ancient solution to one of the planet’s most pressing modern problems? A problem that’s been challenging us to rethink the way we live — and our role in protecting the world around us.

Enter silvopasture. It’s a form of agroforestry that combines the farming of livestock, trees and land management to sustain healthier soil and higher biodiversity and to reverse climate change through carbon sequestration.

Silvopasture may sound complex, but it’s actually quite simple. Silva is Latin for “forest,” and a pasture is an open, grassy space where livestock typically graze. Taken together (“forest” plus “pasture”), silvopasture refers to planting trees in existing pasture or establishing pasture in existing woodland.

So, where do we stand with carbon, and how do silvopasture systems come into play? 

Much ado about carbon

With agriculture representing nearly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions, farmers worldwide are being challenged to lower their carbon footprint while increasing their productivity. From integrating more renewable energy sources to decreasing the use of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to transitioning to agroecological and organic farming practices, more and more producers — both large and small — are doing their part to make our food system safer and more climate neutral.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the livestock sector currently emits an estimated 7.1 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, representing 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has put sustainable cattle production at the forefront of the climate change discussion — and farmers are paying attention.

One of the most promising strategies for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and decreasing carbon emissions in agriculture is silvopasture. Project Drawdown, a California-based think tank for climate solutions, says that silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. In fact, silvopasture land sequesters five to 10 times more carbon from the atmosphere than land of the same size that is treeless.

And with the carbon footprint of beef production continuing to raise concerns, the need for sustainable cattle production and responsible grazing is only continuing to grow.

Powered by nature

Imagine dozens of cows grazing comfortably among tall grass in a shaded woodland dotted with towering trees. At first glance, one may never guess as much, but this sight holds the potential to reforest our land and fight climate change.

As a subset of agroforestry, the concept of silvopasture — also known as carbon farming — is pretty straightforward. It’s based on a deep understanding of how animal and agricultural systems work together as part of a single ecosystem.

Essentially, silvopasture centers on alley cropping and the intentional rotation of large herds of livestock through dense intercroppings of grasses, trees and shrubs. When combined, our Earth’s unique natural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them serve as agricultural powerhouses with the potential to increase production and protect the planet.

Here’s a glimpse at the harmonious relationship between our land, our wildlife and our future:

  1. It’s no secret that livestock animals produce significant amounts of methane. However, both trees and soil can capture carbon — which make forests some of Earth’s most powerful natural weapons.
  2. When plants take in carbon dioxide, it’s photosynthesized. This sends carbon through their roots as sugars. There, living organisms, from arthropods to bacteria, turn it into stored carbon.
  3. While traditional crop and animal farming practices, like plowing and tilling, expose carbon to air, where it combines with oxygen to become CO2, silvopasture allows carbon to be stored and for wildlife to thrive.
  4. Bacteria and fungi bring together minerals in the earth with the carbon in sugars to create tiny aggregates with spaces that act as sponges between them. These small spaces are where water is held in times of drought.
  5. This creates a powerful ecosystem beneath our feet that’s rich with living organisms — and serves as the perfect environment for sequestering carbon for centuries to come. With about 25% of Earth’s carbon emissions having historically been captured by Earth’s forests, farms and grasslands, silvopasture can help sustain landscapes that are better vegetated with hydrated soil and that offer plenty of area for carbon capture and storage.

The benefits of silvopasture, however, go far beyond capturing and storing carbon.  

  • Livestock: Trees protect animals from heat and cold, creating a sheltered microclimate that can improve forage quality, prolong seasons of growth and even lead to better-quality meat due to the lowering of variables that can increase stress in livestock. Many trees, as well as the fruits and nuts they bear, can also be eaten by livestock, which decreases the need for farmers to buy external feed for their stock.
  • Land: When animals graze, brushy species are controlled, which reduces the potential for fire hazards. In addition, some waste produced by animals is beneficial for plant growth, serving as a natural fertilizer and reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. Additionally, with high tree density comes improved soil health and moisture, which means less erosion and more resilient land over time. Silvopasture also increases biodiversity, creating a healthier habitat for the animals and organisms that inhabit the forest.
  • Prosperity: Livestock farmers who add timber or pine straw harvest into their forage production can produce more and, subsequently, increase their income more than those who practice grazing alone. Silvopasture also increases the agricultural productivity of each square foot of land, allowing farmers to get a greater return on their harvests.

Greener pastures, happier planet

These elements combined have made silvopasture one of the most effective agricultural production practices — not just for managing livestock farming, but for rebuilding healthier forests and reversing the impacts of climate change to prevent global warming as well.

Project Drawdown estimates that silvopasture is currently practiced on 351 million acres of land worldwide — but that’s not enough. If this number reached 554 million acres by 2050, the impact on global warming would be staggering. To be exact, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 31.19 gigatons.

So, how can animals, trees and farmers work together to regenerate our earth, our climate and, ultimately, our future? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; the needs of every region and every farmer will be different due to varying microclimates and access to resources, as well as their individual knowledge and skills. But with the proper research, training, investment and support, farmers can feed the world and its growing population, all while working together to meet challenging climate goals.