We pulled the cattle out of the woods this weekend and herded them a half mile to one of the open pastures, back to their normal grazing routine. We’ve run the cattle through woods before, but this year we fenced in a lot more forest acreage. We have a few places, as pictured above, where the tree canopy is dense and the ground is basically leaf mulch without much else, so those pieces won’t become productive silvopasture without tree thinning. (By the way, Brett Chedzoy did a great job explaining to me the use of basal area angle gauges for thinning operations. Armed with a handy pocket gauge one can simultaneously create better growing environments for the trees and open the canopy to support more forage growth on the forest floor. I highly recommend seeking out some of Brett’s presentations and documents for anyone considering silvopasturing, particularly for folks in the Northeastern US.) But most of the areas we’re working on are more open and brushy, less “forest” and more “reverting to forest”. These spots don’t need tree thinning, but they need a lot of undergrowth removal. I anticipate that I’ll need to work with the pigs and cattle for a few more years before seeing real grazing potential.
One thing I’ve learned in turning cattle into rough woods is that I really need to pay close attention to their condition. Not all cattle are equally at home in the woods. Some go right in and start tearing into poplars or wild raspberries, even eating the tender branch tips, while others stand around bellowing disconsolately. Going off feed can cause them to lose weight quickly, particularly the younger stock. Obviously the older, larger cattle are advantaged because they can reach leaves that the younger ones can’t. And the older animals seem to remember how to eat brush while the younger ones need time to learn. But I suspect that there are important physiological factors like the adaptability of their rumens to the change in forage, since even among the cows of the same age there is a wide variation in their ability to thrive in the woods. I’ve found that things go much better for the entire herd if I feed hay during their forest stint, smoothing their transition from grasses to shrubs. Feeding hay in the summer is a little disconcerting — I hate seeing hundreds of dollars of hay disappear while there’s good grass growing, but it doesn’t take much figuring to realize that this is one of those “ounce of prevention” situations.