Branching out: Silvopasture for sustainable cattle production

On most cattle farms, you don’t expect to see the livestock playing hide-and-seek between trees that are so tall, you have to crane your neck to glimpse the top.

This is the striking system of regenerative agriculture Daniel Wolf and his family have been implementing on their farms in Brazil for 10 years. Known as silvopasture, farming livestock and trees together has an equally important, yet invisible, component — carbon sequestration.

Silvopasture: How raising beef cattle and trees together can help the planet

“Everyone says that the best day to plant a tree was yesterday,” said Daniel, “and this kind of project, as soon as you apply this new technology, you learn a lot and you can increase your productivity and sustainability, and that’s what we want.”

When Daniel’s father, Mario, arrived in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso with friends and family in 1975, there were no roads and no communication infrastructure in place. There were, however, two important rivers nearby, as well as the Amazon biome, which includes the Amazon rainforest, a tropical rainforest and other ecoregions. Today, the Wolf family owns three farms that, together, cover 12,000 hectares, half of which they preserve as regional forest.

The local wildlife — from parrots to monkeys — is part of the Wolf family’s daily life, and they have seen how plants, animals and people can live in harmony. So, why not implement this on the farm, too?

What are the benefits of silvopasture?

Silvopasture is a form of agroforestry that combines grazing livestock with the farming of crops and trees. On Daniel’s farms, producing cattle, trees and soybeans together in a symbiotic system has allowed each element to thrive, with additional benefits to the soil and the farms.

  1. The livestock and trees work together to sequester carbon in the trunks, branches and roots of the trees as well as in soil carbon.
  2. Trees can increase animal welfare by helping protect livestock from extreme weather, such as wind and heat.
  3. Trees also provide forage for livestock to eat.
  4. The shelter and improved nutrition from these trees increase animal health as well as the production of meat, milk and offspring. In fact, some research has shown that dairy cows can improve their milk production simply by being in the shade.
  5. Livestock such as cattle provide natural weed control and fertilizer.
  6. Farmers reap the financial rewards from this decrease in inputs.
  7. The trees also provide a more diversified income by producing fruits, nuts or lumber, shielding farmers from financial risk.

Daniel has found that this system has allowed him to produce more on the same amount of land.

“We increase the productivity, and we produce crops and cattle, because when you integrate the systems, you increase the fertility of the soil,” he explained. “When you do that, you can put more cows on the same amount of land, so we increase the productivity of the livestock and also the crop. So, you double your production.”

Ciniro Costa Junior is a climate and agriculture analyst at IMAFLORA, a Brazilian nongovernmental organization that works with forestry and agriculture management and certification. Through his work as a researcher with a focus on how to deliver on future demands for food with decreased environmental impact, he has seen that silvopasture systems can be carbon neutral or even generate carbon credits, meaning they can sequester more carbon than is emitted.

Growing up, Ciniro remembers only seeing bare pasture without trees used for farming cattle. Encountering silvopasture opened up a new world of possibility.

“It’s a real gamechanger, right?” he said. “Because you spend your whole life in one scenario and thinking that’s the only way to do things, and when you see silvopasture systems delivering the same products, you think, ‘Wow!’ We have a sort of evolution.”

He is also optimistic about silvopasture and regenerative agriculture’s ability to create a brighter future, even where land has previously been degraded for agriculture and other purposes.

“When I talk about this degraded land and so forth, I see opportunity — opportunity to restore, opportunity to be less impactful on the world, as a human being,” he said.


Producing with a passion for sustainable agriculture

For Daniel, farming is a family legacy that he hopes to pass on to future generations. It began for him when his father invited him to milk cows as a child, and afterward, they would use the milk to make fresh hot chocolate. These experiences developed in him a passion for the work, and now, he is teaching his children the same valuable lessons. During the holidays, the family’s next generation visits the farms and goes fishing, walks through the forest and learns about nature from their parents and grandparents.

“My dad is a hero for me and for our family,” said Daniel, “and I want to be a hero for my son, and for the other generations.”

He also believes it’s just as important to look beyond their family farms to how they are impacting the wider industry, and the world.

“It’s not guaranteed that my son will operate this business, or my nephew,” he said. “But we have to build a business that is sustainable for everyone. And, maybe, my grandchildren can follow the steps of my grandfather, of my father, and mine.”


Shedding light on silvopasture, and sharing the success

Daniel feels deeply tied to his family’s land, in large part because he knows the positive impact it can have on others.

“I think it’s gorgeous — I think it’s very beautiful,” he said of the land. “But it’s more than that, because here’s our life; everything that we have comes from here. And the food that we produce here can feed so many people, and they can have good moments with the food that we produce here.”

It’s why he’s convinced — despite the disinformation about agriculture and the blame it often receives — that farmers must play a central role in not only protecting the land, but also in feeding a growing global population in a sustainable way.

“Agriculture has to be part of it, because the meat that you eat, the food that you eat and the clothes that you use come from agriculture,” he said. “So does the solution to feed the planet.”

Silvopasture, with its sustainable cattle production and capacity for carbon capture and storage, is just one example of regenerative agriculture that can make a monumental difference to the health of our planet. Ciniro believes that the most important thing, now, is to create such systems on a larger scale.

ground view looking up at a forest

“Agroforestry is not a new thing — people have been developing agroforestry forever, right?” he said. “The point is how we can translate agroforestry systems to scale, and how to scale and continue delivering products and develop value chains based on agroforestry systems.”

In Mato Grosso, cattle outnumber people, and the industry offers a rich and important value chain. Ciniro estimates that almost 10 million people in Brazil are directly or indirectly related to the beef cattle sector along that value chain.

Such staggering numbers emphasize Daniel’s belief that we are all on this journey together. Just as the cattle and trees work together on his farm, so can people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

“New technology that is invented in the city comes to the farm to increase the productivity with one thing in mind: that we are all together, and we need to preserve, and we need to make the planet better for everyone,” he explained, identifying to the solar-powered system his farms use to pump water from the ground for the cattle as an example.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the land — how it is farmed, preserved and shared by all creatures in harmony.

“My mother and my dad always said that ‘the best place to be is the place that you are,’” said Daniel. “We want to take the best of this piece of land so that we can help our family, the people who work with us, the community, the country and the world.”

by Elise Murrell | Jan 7, 2020