Every year, we have a similar struggle in the pasture for the sheep. In the early part of the season, there’s too much grass, growing tall and lush at exponential speeds. You can’t move the sheep through fast enough. Then things peak off in July and by August, the land grows brown and dryer, the grass stops growing, and the sheep are miserable with the bright sun and heat.
They lay in little huddles, panting, wishing for a light rain to ease the late summer dry zone and green up their paddock. But if we let them back in from pasture, they just loaf about in the barn instead of meeting enough hours of grazing time. Even the milk production goes down during these hot, dry stretches.
In the age after the Cutover, the Fullingtons like so many other homesteaders in the area, labored for what must have felt like ages to tear those massive white pine stumps from the land in order to grow crops and gardens, build homes, and raise livestock. When Grandpa bought the farm from the Fullingtons back in ’68, Lloyd made Grandpa promise that he’d never plant trees in the fields—another common story that became the fate of most farms in our neck of the woods. After all those years of pushing back the forest, those fields and pastures were now thick groves of red pine plantations.
There were some scruffy, shrubby areas behind the barn and on the edges of the fields (former cattle grazing areas), which Grandma and Grandpa did plant in red pine, and they have since been thinned and tended as necessary. Now they were thick and strong and in need of another round of thinning in order to give the remaining trees enough space and light to thrive. But still, these trees are around the edges of the pasture, not out where they can help the sheep beat the late summer heat.
We’ve thought of building shelters on skids and pulling them along for the sheep. We’ve looked at collapsible shade systems on wheels. We’ve even thought about putting up solar panels in the pasture and letting the sheep graze beneath them (though, this one isn’t off the radar, we just need to work on the capital part).
But then Kara was invited to attend a workshop being coordinated by our UW Extension livestock agent Otto Wiegand on sylvopasture methods. Coming from the ancient word sylvan (forest), the idea is to create an open-grove area (much like an oak savanna) where mature trees with wide spacing offer enough shade and wind protection to provide comfort for the livestock but still allow enough sunlight through to grow a crop of grass on the floor below.
The full-sun pasture grasses would grow first and be consumed during the early part of the summer, while the sylvopasture grasses would grow slower and still be a viable and nutritious food source when it was time to move the livestock through during the hot season. The system has been especially popular in areas like the Carolinas, though it is still a fairly new concept of pasture management for the Midwest.
Just about any type of tree can be suitable for sylvopasture, with common choices being nut trees, oaks or maples. But sometimes even pines are used as well.
“I’ll want to caution you,” advised Jeff Groeschl, our forester during a meeting on the project. “Red pines can’t take much soil compaction. There’s this one guy down the road I’m watching who lets his cattle into his pine plantation, and 60% of the trees are now dead. But then, he has it too heavily stocked, and you guys are raising sheep, so that’s a big bonus for you.”
Typically, when managing a pine plantation, thinning strives for an 80% shade cover. With sylvopasture and the need for light to grow the grass, the desire is to create a 50% shade canopy.
“This is a new thing for me,” Jeff remarked as he poured over the resources Kara had collected from the conference and the internet. “But it’s exciting. You guys have a good vision with this and thinking towards how you want to use your land. We can do this.”
Otto and Randy (a pasture extension agent) also joined us, Jeff, and members from the small-scale logging team as we crashed through the pine plantations, looking at trees and surveying the best management and thinning options. Out on the far side of the field, undergrowth was sparse, but behind the barn were all these young maple trees like a thicket, which would have made it impossible for the sheep to penetrate.
As the loggers set to work taking out the trees marked in red and leaving the ones marked in blue, Jeff was scratching his head as to how we were going to create a good seed bed for the pasture part of the project. First, the loggers were careful to take all of the branch debris to a separate “staging” area, so that it wouldn’t litter the pasture floor.
“And then,” Jeff mused. “What we need is a grinder, like what they use under the power lines, to take out those little maples and work on the stumps.”
But where to find one. He called all his timbering buddies, but no luck. Then, one day after driving home from our farm, there came one running right down the road! A company with a grinding rig just happened to be working a job in the area and could squeeze our little project in. What a happy coincidence!
While neither crew was on the farm for very long, it was a bit of a shock for some of our clients to see logging trucks running up and down Fullington Road. But as we explained that this was part of thinning the pine plantations to make shaded pasture for the sheep, eco-fears were abated. Of course, the pasture’s won’t instantly be ready and it may be a five-year process to get them fully established, preparing the trees and removing the understory has been a huge step forward.
When working out in the hot sun in the garden yesterday, I was feeling ready for my own version of sylvopasture! Sylvogardenening? It wouldn’t surprise me if that exists as well. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com