By Miles Merwin
Farmers in Wisconsin will have the opportunity to see first hand a project which seeks to demonstrate the feasibility and profitability of combining trees, forage crops and livestock. AgroForest Wisconsin at Sunnyhill Acres in Sheboygan County is managed by fifth generation farmer Geoff King. Additional funding over three years will be provided by the Sustainable Agriculture Program of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"The addition of a forestry enterprise to the annual ag crop will diversify and stabilize per acre income, and benefit whole farm profitability," Geoff King said. Prior to starting the agroforestry demonstration project, Geoff was already supplementing his income from sheep grazing and forage operation by producing firewood and maple syrup from the mixed hardwood woodlots on his 200 acre farm.
Through new plantings and thinning of existing woodlands, AgroForest Wisconsin will show three stages in the development of a silvopastoral system. Starting last year, trees were planted on three acres of an existing mature pasture. Hybrid poplar cuttings and red oak seedlings were planted in rows 40 ft. apart at about 100 trees per acre; three poplars were planted for each oak. Tube shelters protect the trees from animal damage and improve growing conditions.
In this silvopastoral system, pasture crops will provide short term income while tree crops of different rotation lengths will yield medium and long term returns. Forage is either grazed or mechanically harvested each year. Geoff plans to harvest the poplars for firewood in 7-10 years as a cash crop to help cover the initial investment. Removing the poplars will leave about 30 red oaks per acre to grow on a longer rotation for a high value timber crop.
"We expect to see benefits of introducing tree crops on ag land in that they will tend to increase retained snow cover, thereby adding moisture to the soil," Geoff King said, "and also reduced moisture stress on forage crops during the mid-season heat by providing partial shading." By wide spacing and then thinning, he aims to create a uniform canopy of oaks to improve growing conditions for the forage crops and thereby to increase forage yields in the second and third cuttings. Trees and perennial pastures will also reduce the potential for soil erosion on his hillsides.
The second phase of the AgroForest Wisconsin project will try to show landowners who have acreage being released from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that agroforestry can be a financially and environmentally attractive alternative to the resumption of tillage. Maple saplings will be transplanted from nearby woodlands into another mature pasture at wide spacing, thereby creating an intermediate term silvopasture. Permanent pasture will support annual grazing beneath the trees. As the maples mature, they will be tapped for the production of syrup, and could eventually be harvested for a wood crop.
"We hope to demonstrate an option to landowners who have acreage coming out of CRP, rather than returning to tillage," Geoff said. "Although some CRP acres have been planted with trees, waiting for those trees to become marketable, without that land generating annual income, may not be financially feasible. Silvopasturing or alley cropping may be solutions."
The third component of the AgroForest Wisconsin demonstration involves thinning of an existing woodland and the introduction of rotational grazing. Geoff King plans to thin one of the farm woodlots to about 30 trees per acre. Pasture acreage will be increased by the establishment of grass clover beneath the trees for sheep grazing. A working example of a what a mature, 10-15 year old silvopasture would look like will thus be created.
"By establishing a forage crop in existing wooded acres," Geoff said, "additional grazing paddocks will add flexibility to our rotational grazing and provide benefit to livestock in reducing weather-related stress from heat and wind." He expects that both crop and livestock production will increase through the use of widely-spaced trees and rotational grazing. With uniform canopy cover, livestock will be less likely to congregate under individual trees. Rotating sheep from one paddock to the next reduces the potential for tree damage and also lessens their impact on the pasture. Animal health will also benefit from the shade and shelter provided by the trees.
Throughout the duration of the AgroForest Wisconsin project, Geoff King and others will monitor tree growth, crop and animal yields, fuel use and soil fertility. The practical results of the project will be shared with other farmers, both through on-site field days and educational displays at other meetings.
The first field day will be held at Sunnyhill Acres on June 1, 1996. During the summer of 1996 and following fall, information on AgroForest Wisconsin will be displayed at conferences of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners, Wisconsin Graziers, Wisconsin Shepherds and Wisconsin Farm Progress Days.
A brochure which briefly describes the project and contains a map for visitors to the site is available. For more information, contact Geoff King, AgroForest Wisconsin Project Manager, Sunnyhill Acres, N2889 County Hwy. W, Cascade, WI 53011, tel. (414) 528-8773.
(This article appeared originally in the Temperate Agroforester, April 1996. Thanks to Geoff King, Mary Hoff and The Country Today newspaper for providing information).