Intensive Silvopasture – a Win-Win for Carbon and Yield


I don’t have rights to a photo of intensive silvopasture, but in this image we have high density
of leucaena with pasture below, thus a very similar pattern. Ethan Roland for scale.

As I research my book on carbon-sequestering agriculture I am occasionally struck by particularly promising techniques that mitigate climate change, build soils, and actually increase production of human food or other yields. One such system that has me excited this week is intensive silvopasture.

Intensive silvopasture combines improved pasture with extremely high densities of woody nitrogen-fixing legumes, typically Leucaena leucocephala. These trees are planted at a remarkable 8-10,000 per hectare (up to one per square meter). Grazing is under a planned rotation regime with electric fencing. Livestock graze the trees along with the pasture, with Leucaena resprouting rapidly in the resting period when livestock are rotated out of the paddock. In some cases useful woody overstory species are also incorporated.(1)

Intensive silvopasture was developed in Australia in the 1970s, where it is currently practiced on 200,000 hectares. There are over 5,000 ha in Colombia and 3,000 in Mexico, with ambitious plans for large-scale expansion in both Latin American nations. Colombian and Mexican producers have adapted the system by adding more timber, palm, and fruit trees.(2) Research is needed to determine the suitability of intensive silvopasture outside of humid tropical regions, where plentiful water and sunlight doubtless contribute to its productivity. Species with potential in colder and drier regions include Albizia julibrussin, Chamaecytisis palmensis, Lespedeza bicolor, Amorpha fruticosa, Eleagnus angustifolia and Atriplex canescens.(3)

Intensive silvopasture sequesters carbon at the high end of silvopasture potential, with a study in Colombia reporting 8.8 tons per hectare per year. When timber trees are incorporated, this soars to 26.6 tons per hectare per year, an extremely impressive number.(4) In addition, the abundance of Leucaena leaves in the ruminant diet in these systems results in a lower methane emission per cow.(5)

Yield impacts are astounding. Intensive silvopasture permits the stocking of 2-4 times more livestock per hectare and 2-10 times more meat per hectare.(6) Intensive silvopasture can also help reduce the effects of parasites and diseases on livestock by providing habitat for beneficial organisms. It also improves water quality and biodiversity.(7)

References:

  1. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”, 7.
  2. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”, 7.
  3. Uma Karki, ed., Sustainable Year-Round Forage Production and Grazing/Browsing Management for Goats in the Southern Region, 128.
  4. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”, 12.
  5. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”, 12.
  6. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”, 9.
  7. Cesar Cuartas Cardona et. al., “Contribution of Intensive Silvopastoral Systems to Animal Performance and to Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change”,7-9.

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8 thoughts on “Intensive Silvopasture – a Win-Win for Carbon and Yield

  1. The eventual challenge to follow might be to limit the expansion into wild lands and to actually reduce lands under human food production in order to allow wildlife populations to recover. First things first, though—let’s get sequestering.

  2. Hello, you don’t say a word about animals, can you tell us something about them ? Thank you ! Hélène, from France

  3. Hi Steve, yes part of the idea is to sustainably intensify production so we can stop clearing land and even reforest more of it. Hi Héléne, mostly this is done with cattle though it seems worth trying with other ruminants as well. You can check out the article in the references for more details. Eric

  4. Loved this article! What a resource this tree is. For cold climates would you say the Siberian Pea shrub is the closest equivilant of this species? Or the black or honey locust, which is slower growing?

  5. Theres a Leucaena on our place, planted before people knew what it was.
    It SUPER invasive, now growing all over the place.
    It was coppiced this winter and will not be allowed to go to seed again!
    A good resource , but needs to be controlled very well.

  6. Do you have a reference for the statement, “Intensive silvopasture was developed in Australia in the 1970s, where it is currently practiced on 200,000 hectares.”

  7. Hi David, that reference is from the Cardona article as well. Lindsay, the goat article in the references lists options for other climates. Jack, yes it is pretty weedy the idea is not so much that particular species, but the idea of coppicing legume intercropped densely with pasture and rotationally grazed.

    1. Thanks. The article mentions work done by Qld researchers and Meat and Livestock Australia publications in northern Australia. Well worth a read. The farmers appear to have had trouble establishing the silvopasture trees – which will be a familiar plaint to anyone who has done agroforestry work :) But an interesting approach. Will be interesting to see how it goes with some improvements mentioned by MLA.

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