[Iowa] Looking for a critique of my plan

Hello All,

New to silvopasture practice.  I am a forestry and Global Resource Systems student from Iowa State University.  Agroforestry has really stolen my heart, and I've been trying learn as much about it so I can hopefully make a difference in the future.  Because I study forestry and come from a livestock background, silvopasture is the best way to combine my heritage with my education.  I've been trying to convince my father to convert our degraded woodlands to silvopasture for the last two years (We have about 300 cows rotating through our farm at any given time, and lots of woodland to expand into).

Our project site is a north slope, ~20-35 degrees, Nordness soil (silty loam with limestone parent material).  The current forest has no timber value and little to offer for wildlife or tree products.  Shagbark hickory, bur oak, red oak, boxelder, ash, and elm dominate the overstory with your typical Iowa honey suckle, multiflora rose, and boxelder underneath.  While I was in school, my family used a forestry mower to clean out the understory and some of the scraggly trees.

This is where things get hairy.  The forest is going to start responding immediately to the thinning.  There is a lot of exposed soil and junk species.  Garlic mustard is already springing up with the rest of the herbaceous layer, and most of the boxelder and ash will start coppicing.   That said, I don't think it would be right to bring cattle in yet.  The soil is too fragile and there is not enough grass.  Going forward, this is my plan:

(1) Broadcast seed a cool-season grass mix as soon as possible, especially on the bare patches of dirt.  Hopefully it gets a chance to compete with the herbaceous layer.

(2) Let everything grow until fall.

(3) In the fall, perform another thinning, this time dropping more of the overstory trees.  Form into brush piles for wildlife habitat.

(4) Follow with a frost seed.

(5) Cut, but do not spray understory boxelder, ash, etc.  Let it coppice and let cattle graze as fodder blocks.

(5) By spring 2020, hopefully a healthy mix of grasses and forbs will be present under a scattering of oak and hickory.  Hopefully I can introduced caged oak, chestnut, and kentucky coffee tree.  I'm really interested in black locust, but it's still a taboo subject for my farmer, and at the end of the day I am still an inexperienced college student.

(6) Throughout the year, use positive-reinforcement feeding techniques to train our angus cattle to eat - and like - honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and garlic mustard leaves.  I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary but I've been reading it and I think it might give us a leg up on targeted conservation grazing.  Plus I enjoy working with livestock when i get the chance.  

--- Silvopasture (and agroforestry in general) is new to my family.  We are somewhat conventional farmers, so I am trying not to be too radical for them.  (Sometimes I feel radical as a forestry student, as most of my beliefs don't fit well within traditional forestry, but that's a rant for another day).  For now, it's much easier to convince my family to convert degraded woodlands into silvopasture than to add trees to existing pasture.  My main goals are to:

(1) Finally push silvopasture theory into practice, and learn from my mistakes.

(2) Use the learning opportunity to share and learn with other silvopasture enthusiasts

(3) Increase the productivity of a cool-season pasture mix during the summer heat-slump.

(4) Decrease heat stress on cattle.

I'm incredibly hesitant to do anything.  I want to maximize natural capital, wildlife habitat, and livestock health, but I don't want to hurt the forest.  Woodland grazing can be incredibly destructive and I'm afraid of messing up.  Right now, I don't intend on growing the trees for timber production or forest products, but I would certainly like to look into it in the future. 


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Your plan reads like it is quote viable.  I have recently started silvopasture for my small flock of sheep. They are much less likely to cause lots of damage to the forest than your Angus!  What I am trying is quite similar to what you are planning.  Luckily i do not have the constraints of past farming infrastructure, I am on a tabula rasa program endeavor to learn by doing.  I had forgotten about the positive rieinforcement feeding.  Thanks for that.  I am having some success with sheep eating the barberry, the japanese knotweed, and other shrubs that are growing in the understory.  I have found the sheep are now, after a few weeks of being in the forest, being too selective, and ignoring some of the available fodder.  My main reasons for doing this is to help limit barberpole worm infestation, and during growing phase, help defray the cost of buying feed for the flock.  So far this is being realized.  I have cordened off the forested area with a double strand of high voltage wire and some unique step in pigtail fencing, which is easy to deploy and so far has been very effective in keeping them safe and contained in new areas.  Meanwhile the frost seeding I did with orchard grass, white clover, and other grasses, in their small 2 acre pasture and in newly opened area [Which I am keeping them off until it is ready and which I will manage grazing] is growing well.  I have to do a soil pH test [when I find the roundtuit] and create the environment and choose grasses properly.  Right now I do not want to grow other species of trees in the forested areas, but lurking in that possibility I'd like to introduce some berries and other permaculture type edible species to the understory, protected from the browsing, of course.  Its an interesting project!



Thanks for the reply, Larry.  I'm glad to see you're getting off to a good start.  Having sheep would be wonderful for experimenting with silvopasture - their lighter impact on the land would make me less scared of making mistakes.  

I actually thought about using the same grass mix as you.  How is it competing with the shrubs and trees (and what species of trees are dominant on your property?)

Good luck going forward, 


Hello   Jesse: 

If not already aware of it,  you might want to check out the event at Carney Family Farms in Maxwell, IA  on   8/3/2019.      See the events section on practical farmers  of Iowa website:    https://practicalfarmers.org/events/field-days/one-familys-vision-f...

Come visit us anytime in  Missouri and can see several silvopasture site both on Center for Agroforestry  research farms and producers around the region. 

Best regards, 


Hey Jesse--good for you for what you are studying and trying and where you are studying and trying it!

I've got a small flock of sheep I stock over the summer before they go to "freezer camp" and I seeded my old hayfield to an 18-species, mostly cool-season cocktail a few years ago. The lambs love their alfalfa and chicory.  I too want to provide better forage during the summer heat slump and am thinking of strategically introducing some prairie species. In the meantime, I've been mowing strips within paddocks before I rotate them there to give them some fresher regrown fodder. Planted tree fodder strips are the long term goal. 

It'd be nice if you could utilize species like sheep or even elk that browse a bit more to accomplish your goals, but of course your family's goals and yours have to mesh. Perhaps Dad could be convinced that other species are a good temporary solution to achieve a longer term outcome of better cattle pasture?


I look forward to follow up on how the year actually went. Im in year three of a somewhat similar project. I am using angus but my space is fallow orchard. For my purposes i really like the anus, i would like to get hair sheep too but im not there yet. If i had caught this thread earlier i would have suggested an intense winter kill cover crop mix beneath the trees and a quick pass through with the cattle, keeping their impact very light. Also i like thinning in the paddock the cattle are in, i find they like most trees. Mine come to a running chainsaw like a feed bucket, but i have tons of mulberry to thin. I also suggest feeding the cattle hay in this pasture once the ground is quite frozen, not letting them turn it to a mud pit or feeding in one spot but getting some more fertility cycling in there.

You could also align felled trees on contour (or 1% slope towards ridges) to slow runoff and increase nutrient retention during heavy rains. (Think keyline design). Making brush piles for wildlife sounds like a lot of extra work.

Hi, we are doing a similar project. Our experience is that the multiflora rose is going to be persistant. I hve not read that cattle are interested in grazing MFR. Our sheep and donkeys eat the leaves and tender stems. I have read MFR seed persists for 30 years.  Perhaps goats or sheep and donkeys are a better plan. You will need a guard animal for the sheep or goats.  Goats need stronger fencing.  Best of luck. Joanne

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