Silvopasture: A Sustainable Way to Raise Large Livestock

Every year millions of acres of forest are cut down to make room for ever-growing herds of livestock. Our industrial diet is centered on the consumption of meat. The combination of these two issues brings us face to face with a serious problem. We are destroying our forests and some of the most pristine ecosystems on earth just so that we can enjoy a nightly steak. What if we could raise animals within a forest system?

The Problems with the Livestock Industry Today

Few things characterize the absolute unsustainability of our current system and way of life like the way we raise, slaughter, and consume animals in our current food system. People in the United States eat an average of 120 kg of meat per person per year. That comes out to about ¾ pound of meat each day. For comparison´s sake, a person in Mozambique eats under 8 kg of meat per year and a person in India eats just 4.4 kg of meat per year.

For most families, breakfast probably includes sausage or bacon, lunch might include a hamburger or plate of fish, while a full chicken rests on the dinner table. Much has been written recently about the negative health aspects of eating too much red meat. What very few people take into account, however, are the negative ecological and social aspects of what this massive meat consumption means.

To raise billions of pounds of meat each year requires millions of acres of pasture and other millions of acres destined to the growing of grains that are then fed to those animals. While pastures can be an extremely healthy and ecologically sustainable landscape, cutting down millions of acres of pristine rainforest to establish more pasture land for cows is not an ecologically smart proposal.

Most ecologists consider the Amazon Rainforest to be an essential “lung” for the whole earth. The amount of Amazon rainforest cut down in recent years for cattle pastures, however, has surpassed the size of Iceland, or over 10 million hectares. It is estimated that 80% of all land cleared in the Amazon is for cattle pastures. This loss of rainforest also contributes massive amounts of greenhouse gasses through the slash and burn methods of getting rid of the forest. Instead of having a massive sea of green that sucks up carbon dioxide and spits out oxygen, we´re left with huge, deforested grazing lands filled with animals that produce large amounts of methane, one of the most dangerous gasses contributing to global warming.

In fact, the worldwide cattle industry is reported to contribute upwards of 51% of all greenhouse gasses. While world leaders and climate summits have focused on reducing fossil fuel based emissions (a worthy goal, no doubt), almost no one talks about reducing the amount of meat consumed by industrial nations.

What is Silvopasture?

Should we all simply become vegetarians then? While there are many health and social benefits to vegetarianism, there are other options when it comes to how we raise the meat that we eat. Silvopasture is an ancient practice that combines forestry with pasture. It seeks to grow trees in areas where animals are pastured as a way to get double the amount of production out of one area of land while also contributing to the ecological health of that area.

Throughout history, many cultures around the world have found that animals can be raised just as efficiently in a wooded area as in open pastures. In certain areas of Italy, for example, massive chestnut trees grew wild throughout the forest. People found that pigs could be fattened to slaughter weight by simply letting them roam the woods and feast on the endless amounts of chestnuts laying on the forest floor.

Many types of cattle are also well adept at grazing throughout wooded areas. Planting tree species with a thin canopy layer allows enough light to get through to not negatively affect the growth of grasses. In fact, some grasses grow better in partially shaded areas. In warm climates, the cattle benefit from the added shade through finding a place to cool off. In colder climates, the forest can act as a windbreak helping to protect cattle from the harsh winter winds.

Silvopasture systems can also be adapted to other types of animals not known for living off of pasture. For people who have mid-sized to large orchards, pasturing different fowl through the orchard system brings added benefits to both the orchard system and the animals. Chickens can be grazed underneath the orchard after harvest to clean up any fallen fruit. This offers the chickens a needed source of nutrition while also helping to limit possible sources of disease for the orchard trees. Geese can also be pastured throughout the orchard system as a sort of biological mowing machines. Geese love any sort of grass and they can help keep orchard grass and other weeds at bay without having to use harmful herbicides.

Ecological Benefits of Silvopasture

If we are going to continue to have meat as a main part of our diet, we need to collectively rethink the ways in which we raise the cattle and other livestock that makes it to our dinner tables. Whereas the industrial livestock system is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation, deforestation, and a major contributor to climate change, silvopasture systems can offer us an abundant source of meat while improving, instead of degrading, ecosystem.

Consider the wide open pastures of central Texas. Instead of thousands of cattle roaming about an open landscape that is growing drier and more degraded every year, imagine that landscape dotted with millions of sparse canopy trees. Instead of looking at a landscape that was on a path to desertification, you would be looking at a newly planted forest ecosystem that also harbors livestock.

The main ecological benefit of silvopasture systems is that they allow for trees to be grown in agricultural systems. Trees suck up carbon dioxide from the air and can act as carbon sinks. They also help to improve the soil through slowly adding a steady source of organic matter through leaf fall. As the soils improve, the quality of the pasture will also improve leading to healthier animals and healthier ecosystems.

Silvopasture Systems for Ecological Livestock

Raising cattle is almost always considered to be one of the worst things for the environment. While the modern livestock industry does bear its burden of responsibility for numerous ecological catastrophes, there are alternatives to raise animals in a healthy and ecological manner. Silvopasture seeks to combine livestock with forests in one system that allows for healthy animals and improved ecological resiliency.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.

One Comment

  1. Sites like yours are very important sources of information for some people. It is very disappointing, however, when a source of information like significantly exaggerates information like the following:
    “In fact, the worldwide cattle industry is reported to contribute upwards of 51% of all greenhouse gasses.”
    This statement is so clearly way off the mark that it draws into question every other claim and data point in the article. While the numbers are in some minor dispute, it is generally estimated that all of agriculture combined accounts for between roughly 15 – 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Claiming “51% of all greenhouse gases.” is patently false and doesn’t help the debate when skeptics see exaggerations like this. You can do better.

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