Grass-fed Beef and Black Locust: 30 Years of Silvopasture

In Watkins Glen, New York, 45 minutes from Ithaca, is Angus Glen Farm. Here, the Chedzoy Family runs 100 head of cattle over 310 acres of pasture and silvopasture. Silvopasture is defined as the integration of grazing animals into an existing forest, and/or the establishment of tree rows on grazing land. Brett Chedzoy, in addition to working with Cornell Extension, manages the land’s beef herd and forestry enterprises. Brett’s background is in forestry, but he is both a forester and a grazier. Brett met his wife, Maria, in Argentina, while working with the Peace Corps. He returned to the U.S. with silvopasture techniques from down south. We'd like to extend our thanks to Brett for walking us around his farm, and being incredibly open with his successes and failures over the past 30 years. Brett also manages a silvopasture forum, linked here for those that would like to read more and continue the conversation.

Well-managed silvopasture does not consist of running pigs in the woods, but should be thought of as holistic planned grazing under an established canopy or in between rows of trees in a plantation. Animals must be quickly rotated through partially-shaded paddocks, such that their impact does not disturb the trees’ root systems. If pigs or cattle are left in the woods for too long, they will compact the trees roots and slowly kill the canopy. At that, the trees will not show signs of stress until they are already on their deathbeds, and it is very difficult to bring them back to health once they have been damaged. Brett runs 100,000 lbs. of cattle (100 animals or so), through 110 permanent paddocks. His paddocks are fenced with high-tensile wire. He grazes the animals for eight months of the year, and bale-grazes them for another four. Bale grazing consists of feeding animals hay on dormant paddocks in the winter. Living barns of thick conifer trees protect the cattle from cold winds in the winter. The 2016 summer drought was not an issue for Brett, because the trees in his pastures held onto the winter’s moisture.

 A black walnut and black locust plantation, managed as a silvopasture

A black walnut and black locust plantation, managed as a silvopasture

Many years ago, Brett planted a black walnut plantation on this family’s land, and included black locust as a nitrogen-fixing nurse crop that would provide an interim yield. Black locust is a very dense, rot-resistant wood that is used for outdoor structures and fenceposts. Walnut takes an extremely long time to mature, and the discounted cash flow projections of a tree over 60 years, though they can certainly be modeled, require a great degree of faith in addition to what the numbers alone can provide. If more people thought on a 50 or 80-year timeframe, black walnut would be fantastic. It's the perfect get-rich-not-quick scheme. Alas, black locust's 15-year yield is much more approachable, and Brett is a strong proponent of the species.

 Black walnut yields beautiful timber, and is often used as a veneer species. Cankers like this greatly decrease the industrial value of the tree, but for small-scale furniture making, they can give wood a great deal of character. Generic black walnut furniture is less exciting in today's market, while imperfect, interesting furniture is all the rage.

Black walnut yields beautiful timber, and is often used as a veneer species. Cankers like this greatly decrease the industrial value of the tree, but for small-scale furniture making, they can give wood a great deal of character. Generic black walnut furniture is less exciting in today's market, while imperfect, interesting furniture is all the rage.

Brett's cattle manage the silvopasture's understory: they keep the brush down, and along with the grass, they turn it into soil, inside their guts. Thinnings of black locust at 16, 20, and 24 years have yielded 300 posts per acre. Access to markets and operations vary by site, but at $5 per post (wholesale), this amounted to $1,500 per acre. Having gotten to know the nuances of silvopasture and forest edges, Brett now plants locust, lets it move into his pastures, and manages it for posts.

Angus Glen Farm was once a dairy farm. At the moment, conventional dairy farms are having a very tough go: costs of production for 100 lbs. of milk are 28% higher than the price it commands. Milk aggregators are dumping skim milk into manure pits, because market demand isn't strong enough to pull it onto supermarket shelves. Generation Y and Z don’t drink much milk anymore, and as a country, we drink 37% less milk than we did in 1970. (Washington Post, 2014) The (global) story of commodity farmers lacking differentiation and bargaining power is all too familiar. The main takeaway from the proverbial commodity solution manual is that farmers don’t need to derive more income from their commodity, but rather just need to derive more income. The solution to the dairy crisis is not necessarily to buy more milk, but rather to differentiate that milk and diversify farm yields in order to increase farmers’ bargaining power and financial security. Every farmer is different, and enjoys different facets of farming: there is no one-size-fits-all way to alleviate the hardship of the northeast dairy farm. At that, grass-fed beef, running in a planned silvopasture presents one approachable, financially sustainable and ecologically regenerative alternative or addition to conventional dairy.

By now, you’re likely dying for numbers. Given Brett’s experience, if he were to start over, he would recommend a grazed locust plantation at 8x10-ft spacing. Three rows of locust, 10 feet apart, would be interspersed with a fourth row of hardwoods or nut trees. The first and third rows of locusts would be thinned for pole wood after 15 years, and the second row would be removed as large hop-poles after 20 years. With the fourth row of chestnut trees, we phrased nut harvests in years 15-30 as a 15-year annuity. Discounting that along with the black locust yields, at an 8% cost of capital, yields a net present value, inclusive of installation and management costs, of $17,000 per acre, not including beef yields. If you’d like to know how we got there, contact us, and we’ll talk.

Propagate Ventures is not actively pursuing direct payments for carbon offsets and ecosystem services. Systems like these inherently sequester vast amounts of carbon per acre, while producing food. They yield marketable value in the form of timber and meat, and provide the positive externalities of carbon sequestration and ecosystem services.

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