I had the chance back in February of 2021 to be interviewed by Cal Hardage for the Grazing Grass podcast. Before we got into the interview proper, we were talking about leasing nearby land for grazing, and some of the opportunities Cal was pursuing. There was a nearby landowner who had plenty of land available, but he was a hunter, and very wary of letting livestock in, in fear that they might ruin his hunting opportunities. Always the one on the lookout for a silvopasture opportunity, I recognized this as a place where trees could really shine.
While the perennial, cool-season forages thrive in the spring, and warm-season perennial thrive in the summer, trees spend their whole year working towards the fall. Honey locusts, persimmons, apples, pears, oaks and chestnuts, all of which are loved by deer, bear and turkeys, spend months converting solar energy into fruits, nuts and pods. And what coincides with the drop of all those delicious, high-calorie foods? Hunting season. While much of any particular fall landscape might be mixture of bare crop fields, grazed off pastures and overgrown woods, a well-managed savanna-like silvopasture system will rain food from the sky, all while providing cover for wildlife and trees to hang a deer stand.
The trees that drop food for cattle or sheep will work for deer as well, and in fact deer will open up uses for a much greater variety of trees in a silvopasture system. Honey locust is the tree I like most for rotational grazing operations, since the pods will drop late in the season and stay good for months to come, keeping their quality until the next time animals are rotated through. Earlier dropping persimmons, apples, chestnuts, pears and others (like plums or mulberries) don’t work as well for rotational grazing systems, because much of the fruit will tend to rot before the livestock are rotated back around. That’s not a problem at all for deer, since they will gladly help themselves to whatever fruit is falling on your property, whenever it’s falling. They will greatly appreciate your thoughtfulness of planting trees for them.
Speaking of being appreciative of your thoughtfulness, if you help a deer-crazy hunting landowner develop his land through silvopasture in such a way that allows him to spend countless hours doing what he loves most (and maybe even bringing home a trophy buck), you’ll get access to all kinds of land. Crop farmers won’t be able to shake a stick at what you have to offer. Not only that, but the land will be that much better for your livestock as well, offering distributed shade and feed where there was none before. It’s much like the approach Greg Judy has taken, treating the landowners he rents from with great care by installing great fences and even developing well-made ponds. This is one more way you can add value to the relationship and forge long-term land access without the financial burden of land ownership.
Alternately, if you own the land, adding trees to your pastures represents an opportunity for increased income through hunting leases. The proverb says “a fool and his money are soon parted”, and hunters with a case of buck fever are in a spending class all their own. While a grass farmer trying to make money will pinch every penny, hunters will drop huge sums of money on gear, guns and, if all goes well, taxidermy. All of which makes them great customers.
Now, trees are indeed an investment in time and money. I wouldn’t suggest that if you’re leasing a piece of property that you go and plant a bunch of trees on your dime for the landowner. Unlike fence posts which can be pulled up if the lease is terminated, you can’t just move those trees. So unless you have a really long-term secure contract, the burden for the planting should fall on the landowner. They could of course pay out or pocket, or they can seek out silvopasture funding options like those available through their state NRCS office.
By educating hunting landowners on the benefits of silvopasture, you can create new opportunities for grazing leases, establish resilient systems that will serve your livestock well, and create rich habitat that will support an abundance of wildlife for years to come.