Trees are wondrous monuments to the natural world. Each stands as individual its own miniature ecosystem. If you have fields or a pasture on your farm that seem a bit bare, planting some trees may have crossed your mind.
In fact, the term called silvopasture refers to an integrated tree and grazing livestock production system. Silvopasturing can have beneficial impacts on the environment and your animals and even your bottom line. Let’s look at some aspects to consider regarding putting some trees on your pasture.
- Shade: If you have livestock, a large, mature tree or two is a convenient source of shade for animals in the heat of the summer
- Windbreak: One large tree or a row of trees planted at a strategic location in your pasture can help reduce the impact of wind. This can particularly benefit livestock in the winter.
- Erosion fighter: Established root systems help soak up water as well as act as a water filtration system. Leaf canopies can also help disperse rain.
- Care needed: Young trees need a lot of water to grow well and typically require protection from deer and sometimes grazing livestock. Cattle, sheep and goats in particular can kill a young tree by nibbling it to death. Either fence off new growth with a portable electric fence or utilize a physical barrier around the tree so it has a fighting chance.
- Mess: Fallen branches and seeds such as acorns and black walnuts can create pasture debris, which can kill grass and needs to be removed.
- Damage: Wind and heavy snow can cause branches to fall. If planted near fencing or a structure, this creates a property damage rick. Depending on how large and flat your area is, one lone tree can also act as a lightning rod. Carefully consider location when planting anything new.
What Kind of Tree?
If the answer to the first question of whether to plant a tree is yes, then the next question to consider is what kind of tree. A general recommendation is to choose something native to your geographical area, as it is more likely to thrive with minimal care.
Other considerations include mature size of the tree and how fast it grows.
One final aspect that can narrow the list down quite a bit is a tree’s potential toxicity to livestock. This is a huge topic worthy of its own series of posts. The list is long, geographically-specific and (in some cases) species-specific.
Usually, it’s easier to ask what’s not potentially toxic and go from there.
Many toxic trees are an issue if a branch falls and livestock nibble on wilted leaves. This is the case for red maples, whose wilted leaves are deadly to horses. Wild cherry species and peach trees contain cyanide. Ruminants seem to be more sensitive to these toxins than horses.
Oaks are also frequently categorized as toxic to livestock, but the threat depends on how much other forage is available. Pastures with adequate grass or browsing (for goats) are enough to keep nosy ruminants from nibbling on branches or acorns fallen from trees.
Acorns contain high levels of tannins, which can be toxic at high levels. These are bitter chemicals, and most animals don’t develop a taste for them unless they have nothing else from which to choose. (Pigs are a notable exception, as they enjoy and thrive on acorns.)
What Can You Plant?
So what can you plant? Ash, cedar, hickory and beech are a few common North American trees that are livestock friendly. Talk with knowledgeable staff at your local nursery for more detailed information on native trees in your area, rate of growth, size and durability.