While some farmers are removing trees to make bigger fields, Geoff King is doing the opposite - planting trees in the middle of his fields.
King is implementing agroforestry practices, combining forage production with long-term tree management, on his 200-acre Cascade, WI, farm.
"I alley-crop alfalfa between rows of fast-growing hybrid poplars interplanted with red oaks that won't produce a harvest for 80 years or more," he explains.
His land, located on the edge of a kettle moraine, has a thin layer of topsoil and a shallow subsoil layer of clay on top of rocks and sand. To preserve the land and make a living, he produces a variety of products for niche markets, including hay for horse owners.
He says his latest endeavor will help build topsoil while setting up the potential for a second income from the same land.
"The timing makes perfect sense," he says. "When the forages need the most sun to grow, the trees haven't leafed out yet. When the trees provide a leaf canopy, then grazing animals are provided with even shade cover, which reduces animal bunching and associated soil compaction and disease problems."
The tree canopy will keep moisture in the soil longer, "reducing moisture stress on forage crops during midseason heat."
Alleys of alfalfa remain between hybrid poplar cuttings and red oak seedlings, planted in rows 40' apart, with about 120 trees per acre.
Three years ago, King planted three poplars beside each red oak, planning to begin harvesting them in seven to 10 years.
"Trees aren't a commodity that must be harvested and marketed in a short period," he points out. "I have a 10- to 12-year harvest window, allowing me to wait for the price and time that best suit my needs. That diversity increases my profitability and ability to weather tough commodity-market conditions."
When the poplars are gone, 30 red oaks per acre will remain to mature. In the meantime, he's either grazing or mechanically harvesting alfalfa between and under the rows of maturing trees.
He emphasizes that good management of rotational grazing is critical when livestock and trees are combined. By matching the tree size with the animals grazed, he minimizes the damage done to trees by animals.
"Younger trees work fine with sheep and young cattle. But older trees provide a more stable environment for larger animals."
Startup costs for trees, protective tubing and labor averaged about $5/tree.
Besides the topsoil-building benefit and increased livestock carrying capacity with less heat stress, King calculates a $92,000 increase in net value for the farm, based on the agroforestry practices in place and planned for the next seven years.