In art, depicting pastoral scenery is a simple equation: shepherds guide livestock through open pastures as the seasons take shape around them. While yawning pastures make for beautiful settings, the open nature of the pastoral scene poses a significant biological problem— that’s a lot of open space. This is especially true when you realize that livestock production accounts for 30% of our earth’s land surface area.
Silvopasture Allows Colombian Cattle and Timber to Coexist
That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with grasslands; grasslands are great. But in tropical highlands, simplifying a complex and biologically diverse ecosystem down to a grass monoculture (between 1990 and 2015, over 1 million hectares of Colombia’s Orinoquía forests were cleared for pasture) doesn’t make ecological sense for the land, financial sense for the farmer, or nutritional sense for the cow.
That is why, over the last twenty-plus years, Colombian cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has re-vegetated 220 acres of open pastureland at El Hatico, the farm his family has stewarded for nine generations. What was once open grassland is now dotted with trees and shrubs. In place of fence posts, high-value native timber trees, like mahogany and samanea, are strung with electrified wire to create a strong and profitable living fence. Leucaena trees provide protein-rich forage within cattle pens.
Molina calls his silvopastoral system “sustainable intensification,” and has seen dramatic increases in milk and cattle production, all while devoting less land to cattle raising. The Cordillera Tropical Fundación reports that implementing silvopasture systems at El Hatico “included planting 10,000 forage trees and 5-30 timber trees per hectare. As a result, milk production increased from 7,436 to 18,486 liters per hectare per year, and animal carrying capacity from 3.35 to 5.04 cows per hectare.”
El Hatico is living proof of what The Center for Research in Sustainable Systems of Agriculture (CIPAV) in Cali, Colombia has been educating for years: environmental restoration and agricultural productivity are not opposing goals. In fact, they are intimately linked.
In silvopastoral systems, cattle are viewed not as an environmental scourge or energy drain, but as “mobile, sun-powered catalytic converters” capable of restoring degraded land. Transitioning from conventional models to silvopastoral systems involves four goals. One, increase plant biomass and diversity. Two, curb soil degradation and promote its recovery. Three, protect water resources and use them rationally. And four, increase animal productivity on a per hectare basis. These goals translate to profit for farmers and stakeholders and added security from the inherent threats of environmental degradation.
Partnerships between CIPAV, the Colombian Federation of Cattle Ranchers (FEDEGAN), the UN’s Global Environment Facility, and The Nature Conservancy have invested millions of dollars into helping Colombian ranchers transition from conventional practices to silvopastoral systems. The Nature Conservancy reports that in the last six years, 105,000 acres have been transitioned and 37,000 acres protected. Almost one million native trees have been planted. Best of all, fertilizer and pesticide use is down and ranchers are enjoying an average 17% increase in milk and meat production while eliminating 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Forests are the lungs of the earth. By planting trees and closing off some areas for natural regeneration while rotating my livestock, I have learned to increase the productivity of my farmland” Colombian cattle rancher Jorge Rodriguez told The World Bank. “Before, I had one animal per hectare and now, thanks to better forage and shade structures, I can have three animals per hectare. In addition, they are better fed and healthier.”
The inclusion of valuable timber or crop trees on farms also helps farmers diversify their incomes. This additional revenue provides much-needed protection from the sting of unexpected droughts or other production interruptions. You may not find silvopastoral scenes in your local art gallery, but you will find them restoring the beauty, profit, and security of tropical highlands.