By Beverly Moseley, NRCS public affairs specialist
Winter is upon Texas' ranchers. The days are shorter and ranchers have long evening hours to reflect on the past year's management success and challenges, while considering new management strategies for the upcoming year.
One resource management system landowners can consider when evaluating options for optimizing cattle performance and ranch economics is establishing a silvopasture, which mixes trees, forage and cattle together on the same piece of land.
"For my operation, it was an opportunity to diversify both my open land and forestland management without losing productivity in either setting," says Ross Brown, Harrison County rancher and district conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Marshall. "We have always focused on forage, forest and wildlife management. Silvopasture gives us the ability to do this on the same acreage. The bottom line for us is increased economic performance per acre."
The Brown family ranch is located near the northeast Texas town of Waskom in Harrison County.
Brown says if a landowner's objectives are primarily livestock and forage production, then a system that incorporates pines can work best. Hardwood trees, which include pecan, hickory or walnuts, also can be managed for a silvopasture mix with livestock and forage.
"Pine trees offer less competition for moisture and provide a protective canopy for livestock year round. A silvopasture system can be designed around both pine and hardwood trees, depending on soil types and the landowner's objectives. One issue with hardwoods is they have a much larger lateral root system and this creates more competition for moisture where the forages are concerned," says Brown. "This can be overcome with wider spacing of the trees and hardwood-specific site selection."
Numerous benefits can be realized by purposefully planning and managing a resource system that incorporates trees, cattle and forages. Brown says benefits can include improved livestock performance, water quality and wildlife habitat, along with recreational opportunities, along with long-term economic profits from sales of wood products, such as saw timber.
"I think it is a win-win situation, both environmentally and economically," Brown says.
Relief in weather extremes
The unrelenting days of record-breaking heat that blanketed Texas in 2011 were a challenge for man and animal. Driving through the state on any given summer day, cattle could be seen huddled under any available shade.
At Brown's ranch last summer, his cattle grazed the silvopasture area throughout the day during the extreme heat.
"The forage under the trees was green and actively growing during the record-breaking heat, while the forage in the open field was in a more dormant state with little green, actively growing vegetation. Grasses seem to be slower-maturing under the canopy of trees and because of this can be more palatable and higher in nutrient value," he adds.
Cattle also can benefit from a silvopasture setting during extreme cold or wet periods.
"I think that we definitely improve livestock performance in a silvopasture setting. The protection offered by the trees in both hot times of the year and cold reduces the energy requirement of a cow and that can translate into increased profit for the cattleman," says Brown.
During spring and summer, these areas also can provide an area for an extended forage-growing season and provide the rancher with an opportunity to incorporate cool season forages for supplemental grazing during the winter. Tree canopies still allow enough sunlight to reach the grasses for optimal growth.
"If the primary consideration is forage production for livestock and hay, then the primary component to me is warm season perennial grasses under the trees," says Brown. "If the primary consideration is wood products, and wildlife is secondary, then native grasses might be more beneficial in the mix. Management will always depend on land management objectives."
Maximizing land use
According to the Texas Forest Service, there are 63 million acres of forestland in Texas with an estimated 468,000 private forestland owners. Silvopasture can be a viable option for these landowners.
"The idea here is a silvopasture has the potential to reduce economic risks, because of its multiple-use aspects. In East Texas, we have the market for timber products. Cattle are also here in East Texas," says Mary Webb-Marek, an NRCS forester in Bryan. "So, it can be a good idea to diversify your operation's management system into a mix of cattle, trees and forage."
Pines that are used in this setting do have to be managed. This can include thinning or removing trees, pruning branches and cleaning up litter, such as pine needles
"When this is done, you allow for your forage growth and you can get sunlight to the forage base," Webb-Marek says.
There are 4 main pine tree varieties used in silvopastures in the southeastern U.S. — loblolly, longleaf, short leaf and slash.
"Loblolly pines tend to be more suitable for a silvopasture because they are hardier when it comes to frost or freeze demands, especially in Texas' northern counties," says Webb-Marek.
She adds that loblolly pines are generally the preferred pine in a silvopasture because their root system is less extensive, laterally, than other pine varieties. In other words, loblolly pines don't tend to out-compete forages for resources such as water, sunlight and soil nutrients.
Tree-to-tree and row-to-row spacings should be evaluated to optimize returns per acre, whether forage or marketable timber. The amount of spacing is dependent on the diameter of the trees.
"For example, when you have an average tree diameter of 10 inches on 1 acre, you would expect to see an estimated 90 to 145 trees with a 17- to 22-foot spacing between each row and between each tree within a row," Webb-Marek says, "This translates into a volume of more than 1,530 board feet per acre of commercial saw timber, which today has a value of $300 per acre."
And, finally, landowners should remember that pines, such as loblolly, can take 25 to 30 years to mature for saw-timber use.
"This is the long-term portion of your management system," says Webb-Marek.
In today's economies of high inputs and tight profit margins, a silvopasture could provide the diversity landowners need to maximize returns per acre.
"My father, Glen Brown, who is 81 years old and has spent most of his life managing those acres for pasture that I have converted to silvopasture, recently commented to me that the only problem he saw with our involvement in silvopasture is we don't have enough of it," says Ross. "I would encourage landowners and managers that have an interest in maximizing returns per acre and addressing multiple-resource concerns, including forage, timber and wildlife, to consider silvopasture in their operations."
"Silvopastures Provide Diversity and Can Maximize Returns" is from the January 2012 issue of The Cattleman magazine.