Call it silvopasture or agroforestry. Or, like James Tanner, call it an economic necessity. Cattle and intensive timber production can work on the same land.
“I bought this farm in '83 and had to pay for it,” says Tanner. “I couldn't wait for the income from the pine trees.”
The combination made sense to this Wrightsville, GA, cattleman. “This is thirsty, sandy soil, not row-crop land,” he says. “That's why we run cattle.”
In Tanner's case, the pine trees were already on the newly purchased farm in a traditional 6 × 12' spacing. Luckily, bahiagrass, generally the forage of choice for mixing cattle and timber production, was growing under the trees.
“Bahiagrass is very drought- and flood-tolerant; it persists even under low fertilization and close grazing and is shade-tolerant,” says Allen Tyree, Hamilton County, FL, extension agent. Tyree has run cattle under pine trees on his own farm and has also worked with producers who practice silvopasture.
Where Tanner doesn't have bahiagrass under his pines, he uses two low-tech methods to establish it. He pulls a cyclone seeder with a small tractor and broadcasts the seed. Or he mixes 10 lbs of bahiagrass seed in a supplement of 100 lbs of cottonseed meal and 20 lbs of low-salt mineral and lets the cattle eat it — and spread it with their manure.
“We do it in late winter when it's wet and let the cattle walk it in. We try to use more common sense and less mechanics.”
To keep the bahiagrass producing, he also uses a small tractor and a tag-along spreader to apply 300 lbs/acre of ammonium sulfate in early spring every year, right after he burns the old grass off for weed control.
He generally doesn't have to apply extra phosphorus and potassium. “We let the cattle fertilize it,” he explains. He moves his winter hay feeding areas around in the trees so the cattle don't concentrate the manure in a small area.
He has seen more tree growth in areas where he runs cattle and fertilizes than where he doesn't graze or fertilize.
Tyree says it also works to establish pine trees in bahiagrass fields. But a 16" band of sod needs to be removed or killed with a herbicide where the seedlings will be planted to hold down competition until they're established, he says.
He recommends planting the trees in a 4 × 8 × 40' spacing. That allows more light to reach the ground for forage production and makes it easier to get a tractor in.
“Past studies on pulpwood yields document that a stand planted in a 4 × 8 × 40' spacing, or 454 trees per acre, yields 85% as much timber as a stand planted at 1,000 trees per acre,” Tyree comments.
If the trees are planted in an existing pasture, though, the cattle need to stay off until the trees are established.
“We start grazing under the trees when the trees are six years old,” Tanner says. “We messed up three-year-old timber putting cows on it. The trees need to be above the cows' shoulders or they'll push them over and eat the tops out of them, too.”
Tyree tends to be a bit more aggressive with grazing and will put cattle in three-year-old pines. However, he recommends a light stocking rate of one cow and calf per three acres for seven to nine months of grazing a year.
Tanner stocks at three cows per acre, but the cattle are only grazed for a short time.
“We graze them for a week and turn them back in after four weeks,” he says.
He practices the on-and-off grazing from April until August, then takes them off for two months to let the forage regrow. When his regular pastures get a heavy frost, usually around Nov. 1, he puts the cattle back under the trees for several weeks. The trees protect the bahiagrass from frost and the grazing is good when it's already gone in other pastures.
The cows are also under the trees from December through February so they can calve in a protected area, but he keeps plenty of hay out so they don't damage the trees. “When we feed really good-quality hay when it's wet, we even get some bermudagrass growing,” Tanner notes.
After 20-plus years of grazing cattle in 115 acres of trees, he has no plans to stop.
“When we saw how it worked, we started managing more intensively,” he says.
Timber production is not for the impatient or those short on cash flow. That's why the yearly income from cattle grazing around the trees is attractive.
Establishing trees in an existing bahiagrass field takes around $125/acre, says Will Tanner, James' son and a professional forester. That includes ground preparation, seedling trees, planting and herbicide.
When 13-14 years old, the trees can be thinned for pulpwood. Using 2006 prices in Georgia, Tanner says they should bring around $330/acre. The second thinning, when the trees are 19-20 years old and in the chip-n-saw stage, should return around $608/acre. The third thinning, in the saw-timber stage at age 25-26, should return around $1,250/acre. At 32-33 years, the trees are normally clear-cut and should bring around $3,775/acre.
While Hamilton County, FL, extension agent Allen Tyree says it can work to graze cattle under those trees, he favors another enterprise. “With current pine straw prices, $80-120/acre in our area, I'd aim for pine straw production until trees are ready to be cut for pulpwood.”
He adds, however, “If you have loblolly trees, they don't work for pine straw. The needles are too dark and too short.”
A new publication can help forage producers learn more about teff, an annual grass that's gaining popularity.
Tiffany Teff Forage Grass is available from Target Seed, Parma, ID. Don Miller, research director, says the company's Tiffany variety has been planted in several states the past two growing seasons.
“We wanted to learn as much about the grass as we could,” says Miller. “We researched the literature on it, added our own information and put it into a management guide with a lot of photos.”
Photos show, among other things, how deep to plant the small seed and how much stubble to leave after cutting. The guide has eight sections: History and Development, Potential Uses, Growth Habit, Adaptation, Cultural Practices, Harvesting, Yield and Quality, and Seed Production. It's available on a disc or in a ring binder. For a free copy, call 866-400-6434.
For more on the growing interest in this new hay crop, see “Teff Takes Off,” November issue, page 28.