This Virginia farmer finds silvopasture success

By Amber Friedrichsen, Associate Editor

The small community of Red Oak, Va., sits in the southern tip of Charlotte County, just hovering above the North Carolina state line. It is a pinpoint on a map of the state’s Piedmont Region with a gentle rolling topography. According to Miller Adams, much of this land was originally covered in trees before it was cleared for various agricultural purposes during colonial times.

Years later, native tree species returned to the region when agricultural activity declined during the Civil War. Adams said this abandonment of agriculture caused many of the crop fields to revert back to timber production. Despite the historical back and forth between land uses, the area forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry has found a way to bring tree production and forage production together in a silvopasture system on his third-generation family farm.

Adams grew up in Red Oak and attended Virginia Tech to study forestry before moving home to help expand his family’s grazing beef herd. Like many farms in the area at this time, the Adamses had a small herd of dairy cattle and grew various crops, including tobacco. As the dairy herd dispersed, beef cattle took their place.

In 2016, Adams purchased an additional 75 acres of land to integrate into the family’s forage system; however, some of the property was peppered with loblolly pine trees. The refined forester estimated the trees were roughly 15 years old. While loblolly pine trees have a productive lifespan of approximately 60 years, he explained these trees are typically harvested after about 30 years as they reach economic maturity.

Instead of clearing away all of the trees, Adams considered using them in a silvopasture system. This concept involves intensive management of forages and trees in the same area to maximize the production of both. Silvopastures can be established by introducing forage into a wooded area or by planting trees into a forage system. With one foot in forestry and the other in farming, Adams decided to combine his areas of expertise and experiment with the former approach.

Miller Adams created 50-foot corridors between every 50 feet of trees in his silvopasture system. He then seeded the open areas to switchgrass to promote better forage production during the summer.

“Silvopasture was a topic I had been interested in for almost 10 years at that point, but I never had a place I thought it would work out,” he said. “I was interested in having more grazable acres, and I thought this would be a good area to at least try something different.”

The establishment process

Adams started out by dedicating 20 acres to silvopasture and clearing 50-foot corridors between every 50 feet of trees. He hired a logger to conduct a heavy commercial trim within the remaining rows of trees to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. Then in the fall of 2019, he administered a controlled burn around this area pasture to eliminate the accumulated debris and duff layer.

The following fall, Adams contracted the use of a forestry tiller to grind down the protruding tree stumps sprinkled throughout the cleared corridors. This ground was then disked with a tractor to prepare the seedbed for forage. Before proceeding with planting, though, Adams considered what species would be best suited to the soil.

“Being in a forest soil, I knew this area was going to have fertility issues that would need to be addressed from the forage side,” Adams explained. “Native warm-season grasses have historically done better on low pH soils, so I decided to go that route with switchgrass.”

Once he seeded switchgrass and gave the stand a year to put down a strong root system, Adams included the silvopasture in his grazing rotation. His herd of 80 Angus-cross cows stayed in the silvopasture for about a week until switchgrass was about 8 to 10 inches tall. Since then, Adams has integrated the silvopasture into the rest of his 200-acre grazing system, regularly rotating cattle through the switchgrass stand in the summer.

Being a native warm-season grass, switchgrass is an asset to livestock production when temperatures spike June through August; however, the trees contribute to better animal performance as well.

“Southside Virginia gets hot and muggy, and our calves suffer to the point where they really need some relief,” Adams said. “The silvopasture brings some shade and comfort the calves wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not managing the trees for timber production. The shade is the real commodity to me.”

With that said, the silvopasture system is a balancing act between too much and too little shade. For this reason, Adams plans on thinning the stand in the next five to 10 years to ensure adequate grass growth while still providing enough shade for cattle.

The bigger picture

Trees don’t have to be planted in perfect rows to be a part of a silvopasture, nor do they have to be a uniform species. In fact, grazing livestock among an assortment of trees scattered across a field can offer ample shade and relief from the heat. Therefore, Adams is trying to promote the regeneration of natural hardwood tree species in his silvopasture.

In addition to providing forage, shade, and timber, silvopasture systems can also enhance wildlife habitat and thus promote more biodiversity. For example, red oak and white oak trees have been shown to attract various bird species in the silvopasture system at Virginia Tech’s Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center two and a half hours north of Red Oak in the town of Raphine.

Overall, Adams appreciates the reduced soil erosion and improved water quality that result from having permanent pastures instead of annual crop fields. Implementing silvopastures on his property is just one way to achieve those environmental benefits while making the best of his available resources.