When I lay out the benefits of silvopasture to a producer, I like to highlight four key goals: Shade, shelter (windbreak), summer fodder and winter feed. There are other benefits of course, like nitrogen fixation, cycling of nutrients from deep underground, increased soil organic matter, etc. But shade, shelter, and feed during the times of year when it’s otherwise most expensive seem to be the biggest boons to graziers.

By and large, what brings most graziers to plant trees is the need for shade. Everyone who runs livestock on pasture recognizes that shade is critical to success. In study after study, livestock are shown to gain more weight, produce more milk and breed more efficiently.

The ideal silvopasture trees are evenly spaced, tall, and have their lower limbs pruned so that the canopy only starts high on the tree, moving about throughout the day. These wax palms in the Cocora Valley of Columbia would seem to do the trick

Now, all these things are good to know, but what any businessperson needs to know when investing in something like trees is this: will it pay? To figure that out, we need to break things down into dollars and cents, or at least attempt to. Honestly, there are so many variables that it’s impossible to tell you exactly how much shade is worth for your operation. The benefit in shade is reducing livestock heat stress, which is dependent on obvious factors like the temperature and humidity, but also whether it’s a sunny or cloudy day, how much of a breeze there is, whether temperatures drop at night and allow livestock to recover, the breed, the color of their coat and whether they’ve shed their winter coat, etc. As with most thing in agriculture, the best answer to “how much is shade worth” would be “well, it depends”. Because that’s not a satisfying answer, let’s take a stab at it anyway.

Let’s assume we’re working in the context of a stocker operation wherein stockers with access to shade will gain 0.89 pounds a day more than stockers without shade. Those are the numbers from a study in Kentucky back in 1999. The authors of that study do note that the maximum temperature recorded during that study was only 84 degrees, and many producers will see temperatures consistently above that. So, many producers will likely see a difference over 0.89 pounds per day.

While trees get a bad rep because livestock will concentrate under them, that’s not the fault of the tree. It can be fixed through thoughtful management, like in this example from Virginia Tech, where trees are well spread out and offer stock multiple shade options in every paddock. Photo credit Gabriel Pent.

Next, let’s assume that every additional pound of gain is worth $1.40. That’s the number Joel Salatin uses in his article “Movement is Everything” from the December 2017 edition of the Stockman Grass Farmer. Put those numbers together, and every day a stocker has shade means it’s making you an additional $1.25. That’s at least a useful number to start with, and you can adjust up or down depending on your conditions.

Now the question you’ll have to answer is this: how many days would that apply in your context? That’s going to be determined by the factors I mentioned above, like the temperature and humidity in your area. If you’re in northern Minnesota and might only get 50 days of relatively light heat stress, you’ll have a completely different calculation than someone in Louisiana who might see moderate to severe heat stress for the better part of the year.

I should mention as well that trees provide better quality shade than do physical structures. We know this because cattle will vote with their feet and almost universally prefer to stand under the shade of a tree than under a portable structure. I’ve been told so by countless farmers. Plus, it’s backed up in trials. Researchers at the University of Arkansas tracked weight gain for dry Brangus cows and found the following average daily weight gain on Bermudagrass pastures: no shade (1.47 lbs.); artificial shade (1.81 lbs.) and tree shade (2.34 lbs.). This is because trees don’t only intercept sunlight, but actively cool the air through transpiration of moisture, acting somewhat like a swamp cooler.

These sheep, resting under a black walnut in a silvopasture research plot at Virginia Tech, will vouch for the value of shade. Photo credit Gabriel Pent

An often overlooked factor to consider is heat stress and pregnancy. At one of his grazing schools, Greg Judy shared that the two biggest robbers of profit are hay and open cows. A trial through the University of Missouri found that cows with access to artificial shade had a pregnancy rate of 87.5%, compared to just 50% for cows without access to shade. I don’t think I need to tell you that a difference like that will have a huge impact on the bottom line.

So now that I’ve laid out the value in providing shade, how do trees stack up against the other shade options? To do so, I’ll compare the cost of establishing tree shade to buying a ShadeHaven.

Last I checked, the cost of a 1,200 square foot ShadeHaven was inching up towards $20,000, not including the cost of getting it to your farm. As I write, inflation and cost of raw materials are soaring, so $20,000 seems like a reasonable number that will likely go up in the years ahead.

The cost of establishing a tree is much more variable. Are we talking a fast-growing and cheap black locust, or a slower growing oak? A hybrid poplar you can propagate for free through cuttings, or a grafted honey locust? For the sake of this article, let’s assume your primary aim is fast shade, and you plant nice sized (2-3’) black locust seedlings for $2/piece. We’ll assume you’re buying enough Plantra tree shelters to get a quantity discount of $10/piece, and that you’ll get 3 uses out of each shelter (removing and reusing each after 2 years). That gives a cost per use of $3.33. Next we’ll say it costs you $5 in labor to plant each tree, install the tube and mulch around it. All together, we get a grand total of $10.33 per tree. For the sake of this comparison, we’ll assume there’s no cost share, as cost share through NRCS or a non-profit group could readily bring the cost down to $0.

A 1,200 square foot structure could provide shade for roughly 50 stockers given 24 square feet per head. So how many trees would we need to give the same amount of shade? That’s obviously a moving target, as trees will provide virtually no shade for the first year or two, and produce tons of shade at age 80. I have a stand of 3-year-old black locusts in my nursery that average a width of about 6’. That’ll provide 28 square feet or shade, or enough for one head. Now that they are established and growing well, I imagine we could have an average diameter of 12’ in another three years, giving us 113 square feet of shade, enough for almost 5 head. Let’s say 4 head to be conservative.

On this project, we are establishing trees while the farmer continues to provide shade through mobile shade shelters.

So, if by year 6 you wanted enough shade in each paddock for all your stockers to have access to shade, you’d need about 13 trees per paddock. If you have 40 paddocks, you’d need at least 520 trees. You’d likely want more trees to further distribute your shade, but this is a useful starting point. At $10.33 a piece, it’d take $5,371.60 to plant. Again, cost share is readily available for tree planting in some states, meaning that cost could be zero.

As you see, investing in shade through trees comes out pretty favorably compared to mobile shelters, and I have yet to see a mobile shelter that can drop a sweet honey locust pod or fixes nitrogen. That doesn’t mean there’s no use for mobile shelters. They are a great tool to use while trees are getting established. So, do your animals a favor, buy that shade mobile, and plant trees. Once the trees are providing all the shade you need, you can sell the portable shade.

While this article cannot give numbers that will apply perfectly to your situation, I hope it’s at least given you some rough numbers to use as you determine how to move forward with silvopasture.

Keep Learning:

silvopasture insight straight to your inbox

Interested in silvopasture trees?

Enter your email to be notified when they're available for sale.

We'll notify you when silvopasture tress are available.