By UNH News Service:

Seeing cows graze in a forest may be an uncommon site in New England but at the Organic Dairy Research Farm at the University of New Hampshire, heifers soon will be dining among the trees. Researchers with the NH Agricultural Experiment Station have launched a silvopasture project at the farm to investigate this relatively new agroforestry practice in the region.

Silvopasture is the simultaneous management of forages, livestock, and timber on the same piece of land. Potential benefits of silvopasture include shelter and shade for livestock, which can reduce animal stress and increase productivity, as well as a source of diversified income from management of timber products.

“Our project seeks to quantify the benefits as well as tradeoffs associated with the establishment of silvopasture systems in our region so as to ensure that New England’s agricultural future remains as sustainable as possible. It is part of a larger effort to support the region’s agricultural community and ensure that farmers have access to science-based information on practices that are both agronomically sound and environmentally sustainable,” said Richard Smith, assistant professor of agroecology. The project team also includes Heidi Asbjornsen, associate professor of ecosystem ecology, and Alix Contosta, research scientist with the UNH Institute for Earth, Oceans and Space.

According to Smith, there is growing interest in the use of silvopasture among dairy and other livestock producers in New England. Silvopasture is appealing because it allows farms with limited pasture land to expand their pasture land base without needing to completely clear a section of their forested land. However, because silvopasture is not widely practiced in the region, there is very little information about how to establish silvopastures available to producers who are interested in them.

“Silvopasture represents a new form of agricultural land use change – the conversion of forested land to agriculture — and a potentially expanding component of our local and regional food system. Therefore, even New Englanders who are not explicitly involved in the regional agriculture and food system should be interested in this work,” Smith said.

Specifically, UNH researchers are trying to understand what happens when forested land is converted to silvopasture. They are interested in how much forage can be produced in a silvopasture under the soil and climatic conditions typical across New England, what happens to the nitrogen and carbon that are in the soil and the trees during and after the establishment of silvopasture, and how the establishment of silvopasture affects the movement and quantity of water that moves through the system and the trees that remain.

Researchers have established a 2.5-acre silvopasture at the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm, a facility of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station. They plan to compare the silvopasture system to a recently established open pasture, a long-term permanent pasture, and the abutting forested land. In addition, they are making similar measurements on farms across the Northeast that are also practicing silvopasture, including the North Branch Farm in Saranac, NY, where former UNH doctoral student Joseph Orefice is maintaining replicated silvopasture and open pasture plots.

Nicole Guindon, manager of the UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm, said grass is beginning to grow on the recently cleared land. The heifers add nitrogen to the soil with their manure as well as help turn up surface material by walking around. Farm staff are supplementing their diet with hay out in the new silvopasture, which also helps break down surface materials.

“Benefits of the project will include more region-specific information for livestock producers who are interested in establishing silvopasture systems on their own farms and data that researchers can use to better understand how silvopasture and other agricultural land uses contribute to local and regional ecosystem services that forested and agricultural landscapes provide to society,” Smith said.

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