Grazing Your Cows on Wooded Pasture

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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Silvopasture is a newfangled word for wooded pasture. Basically, all it means is that you are using wooded land with trees and forage for pasture. The trees can be managed for firewood production and/or saw logs and, at the same time, provide welcome shade and shelter for your livestock and forage.

Traditional dairy farmers in the northeast have grazed woodlands, including sugar bushes, for generations. It used to be called “making milk from the woods.” After World War Two when farmers were being urged to get big or get out, silvopasture was considered an obsolete management practice by the “experts” including foresters who didn’t want to see cows or other grazing livestock in a managed wood lot and routinely recommended against the practice. Cow nutritionists urged farmers to keep their cows out of the woods and out on the fields grazing. They used to tell me that cows can handle heat and don’t need shade. This, of course, is wrong and reflects a lack of basic common sense. As a child, I lived next to a dairy farm that had been grazing its 40-cow Jersey herd in the woods for generations. What a joy it was to walk through those woods with my dog. The forest floor was open and patched with grass. The trees were healthy and you could see deep into the distance, without a brush understory to obscure the view. It felt like virgin forest.

Managing Silvopasture Micro-Dairies

Here are some of my best tips for managing silvopasture on a micro dairy.

Don’t overstock the pasture. If you chronically overstock silvopasture with animals, you risk injuring the roots and bark of the trees. This isn’t so bad if your goal is to open the pasture up and thin the trees. But, if your goal is to maintain the health of the trees you are saving, as you would want to do if it were a sugar bush, then it is best to limit the number of animals you graze there or “under-stock”.

Watch out for mud. Avoid hillside grazing wooded pastures when the ground is muddy, especially in the spring and fall. The cows’ hooves can damage the tree roots and cause erosion.

Keep the cows cool. During very hot weather, cows on a pasture without the option of shade will often stop grazing and bunch together. It seems counterintuitive for them to do that (bunching together makes them hotter, right? Wrong!) until you realize that they are simply too hot to eat. Being close together and swishing their tails offers them protection from the flies. Always make sure your cows have access to shade on hot days.

Embrace the wisdom of the wooded pasture. I have owned three marginal side-hill New England dairy farms. It seems like I have been cutting and heaping brush and trees by hand all of my life in a constant effort to create more pasture. In my younger days, I thought a good pasture needed to be treeless.

Nowadays, I will identify a section of woods that I’d like to use as pasture. First, I’ll do an improvement cut and take the lower quality saw logs (timber) off, including all the pine and Hemlocks. Next, I’ll cut the brush around the perimeter and run a single strand of electrified polywire around the new pasture area and let the cows graze it periodically through the summer and fall. Then, for years after that, I will continue to thin out the trees for firewood, usually around seven cords per year, as I open the pasture up for more grass.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor. The woods I have now include a healthy selection of oak, maples, hickory, ash, beach, white, yellow and black birch and some cherry. For firewood, I target the ash, birch and crowded maples. Every year, I open up a new area and plant grass seed. Soon it becomes an amazing landscape of grass shaded by healthy trees. My wife Wendy, calls those pastures our dog psychology parks. I call it healthy, beautiful silvopasture for my and my cows’ benefit.

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