At Early Boots Farm, beginning farmer Tyler Carlson and wife Kate Droske are using an agroforestry practice known as silvopasture to raise gourmet, grass-fed and finished beef on family land near Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
“What I’m doing is based on a bunch of ecological science that suggests you can effect greater production and have a more resilient landscape. Theoretically, you get to have the cake and eat it, too!”
— Tyler Carlson
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Tyler Carlson started farming in 2011. His land, northwest of the Twin Cities, was purchased by family in the 1960s and has been managed by the family as a rental and “hobby” farm and hunting area. It includes about 100 tillable acres and about 70 acres of oak/aspen forest that Carlson might eventually use for controlled grazing.
Carlson is focusing his silvopasture enterprise initially on 20 acres where he has planted about 9,000 trees, predominantly red oak and red and white pine, into old crop fields and pasture. Between double-row alleys, about two-thirds of the area is open-pasture. His primary goals for the silvopasture planting is to provide shade and shelter for cattle, as well as to improve feed quality, rather than to maximize timber production. Carlson says he would like to have more diverse tree plantings to include fruit- and nut-bearing trees, but initially, he has focused on getting started with species/cultivars that are readily available in large quantities, hardy and resilient, cold- and drought-tolerant for his drought-prone soils with potential long-term value as timber.
The farm’s small herd of lowline angus are a breed imported from Australia. They will be about 850-900 pounds at mature weight, a good size for grass finishing, according to Carlson. His herd size is now 42 head, with an additional 16-17 new calves in 2013.
Carlson has a degree in Horticulture Science from the University of Minnesota, with emphases in restoration ecology and sustainable agriculture. He gained experience in farming through short-term farm internships and completion of a permaculture design certificate. He also took a year-long Farm Beginnings© training course, sponsored by the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project, which he credits for its information and mentorship value.
Carlson is cooperating with University of Minnesota Extension in partnership with the Center for Integrated Natural Resources & Agricultural Management (CINRAM) to allow his farm to be used as a demonstration site to compare pasture with trees to open-pasture conditions. “The research says that silvopasture can help you feed more animals for a longer time with better food,” he says. “We’re going to find out how that plays out here in the Upper Midwest.”
Silvopasture management is fairly complex, says Carlson. However, the benefits of incorporating trees into pasture settings have been reported from around the world, including the southern United States.
Cool-season grasses, which dominate his pastures, go into a late summer slump from high heat. Graziers have to plan for this period, usually stockpiling additional pasture or other stored feed. If shade is added to pastures, it can keep plants cooler and in prime growing condition later into the summer. Shaded pastures produce longer than in wide-open settings and productivity should rebound earlier in fall. Reducing heat stress also creates higher feed value for livestock, since plants that are heat stressed “lignify,” or harden and become more woody, making them less digestible. Carlson expects that his 20 acres of silvopasture will continue to grow when other land has shut down from heat stress.
Besides optimizing the pasture microclimate for food value, livestock benefit from having shade in the summer, and in the winter, a windbreak and shelter from wind and cold. In the beginning, though, the cattle do not have access to the young trees. For several years, electric fencing will be used to fence off the alleys until the trees grow large enough to withstand some rubbing and browse.
The pastures are primarily cool-season grasses that generally provide higher quality forage and better digestibility. Warm-season grasses are more commonly found in southern climates. However, Carlson has some CRP acres planted to native, warm-season grasses that he can use later in the season. With time, he hopes that proper grazing management will facilitate the expression of warm-season grasses from the seedbank or from plantings, allowing continued growth in open areas when the cool-season grasses slump from heat stress
Carlson is trying a grazing system known as Ultra High Stocking Density (UHSD) grazing – also called “mob grazing.” In this system, cattle are bunched on small areas and moved often, with a long pasture rest period before the cattle return. “Some farms using UHSD are seeing tremendous results in improving the drought resistance of pastures,” says Carlson.
For now, Carlson is targeting around 180-240,000 pounds per acre stock density during the grazing season. He’s feeding approximately 30,000 pounds of animals per acre per day, with a target of 4-6 moves per day within that acre. When grazing the alleys in the silvopasture, he moves just once per day.
His herd is doing well and still growing. Within a year, he expects to have 31 calves and mothers, with about 17 yearlings and 9 two-year-old heifers that he will keep to breed. Each year, he expects to be able to sell about 12-15 finished heifers and steers or young bulls for beef. Last year, the operation had a three-month calving window, which was down to five weeks this year.
He is working toward organic certification, but during the drought in 2008, he had to buy conventional hay.
Carlson received assistance for planning from agroforestry specialists at the University of Minnesota and the University of Missouri, who worked with him on an experimental design to balance his operational goals with the characteristics of his land and climate.
Appropriate design is essential to create positive interactions among the plants and animals in silvopastures. Carlson is using a double-row alley design, with tree rows planted 8- or 10-feet apart, and 40-48 feet between the double row alleys of pine and oak. The trees were planted into alfalfa hay and grass pastures, and a corn field, which was seeded to a 12-way mix of cool-season grasses and legumes including white clover, chicory, birds’-foot trefoil, timothy, tall fescue, meadow brome, orchardgrass and perennial ryegrass.
Carlson used controlled grazing and/or a brush cutter to mechanically set back forage and weed competition in the area planted to trees. He reports that the trees have had a good survival rate, although he has had problems with winter damage from mice and deer, particularly within the oaks. He also has had problems with damage from calves that can easily get under the electric fencing. Accordingly, he has curtailed grazing the calves with mothers between the tree rows, opting instead for daily moves of long yearling heifers and steers. Next year he plans on experimenting with making hay within some of the rows.
His watering system requires a fairly complicated layout. The majority of the paddocks are lined up in east to west rectangles about 1,000-1,400 feet long and about 300-400 feet wide. A piping system runs on the surface of the pasture, along every other subdivision fence line. The line has “plasson” fittings every 300 feet that allow for a portable stock tank to be plugged in and situated anywhere along the fence, facilitating the multi-moves per day used in UHSD grazing. The lines are situated to serve two paddocks.
A silvopasture, rotational grazing system doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Carlson uses a 3-point mower, his grandfather’s tractor, and a brush cutter. He says, “I am trying not to start up a piece of equipment when I have cows that can gain weight doing the work for me.”
He is experimenting with tools for his system. To roll fencing, he is using a product known as “tumble wheels” (made by Gallagher Animal Management Systems) and polybraid temporary fence wire on reels – to roll lines. “These are handy tools for rotational grazing that allow me to do so much more on my own.”
Marketing and Economics
At this time, Carlson is mostly marketing his beef to friends and family. As his herd grows, he expects to branch out his marketing efforts to sell to food cooperatives and restaurants in the Twin Cities Metro and other cities in the region.
Carlson developed a business plan to launch his grass-fed beef operation as part of the Farm Beginnings© training course. The course incorporates many aspects of Holistic Resource Management (HRM), including its financial planning and management approaches. To graduate from Farm Beginnings, participants must develop a business plan that can be taken to lenders, with help from peers and LSP staff. Based on that plan, Carlson anticipates his operation should bring in enough in 4-5 years that he can work full-time on the farm.
So far, Carlson’s main expenses have been his cattle and “a lot of expensive hay” during the drought in 2012. He has an old tractor and mower that were owned by his family.
He also must pay for butchering and packaging. He works with Riverside Meats out of Swanville, Minnesota, that butcher on-site, then take the carcass back to the plant for aging and packaging. It costs about $.50/mile, which he considers a good deal compared to the transportation, equipment and time costs avoided. However, Carlson feels that the greatest benefit of the on-farm slaughter is the reduction in stress that the animals go through during harvest. “It’s important to us from an animal-welfare point-of-view as well as preventing stress-induced off-flavors in the meat we sell and eat.”
Fees for packaging depend on types of cuts, sizes and sealing method. Early Boots Farm meats are not eligible to sell retail under this level of USDA processing certification, but can sell portions of live animals as “custom exempt.” To sell retail cuts or to sell to restaurants and grocers (within Minnesota), the animal would need to undergo USDA inspection before slaughter, which can be done at Riverside Meats’ facility.
Sources of funding assistance have included:
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service that provided assistance for rotational grazing practices (fencing, a watering system and pasture plantings) and also for the EQIP forestry practice that helped cover the costs of trees and tree planting. As a beginning farmer, Carlson was eligible for a higher level of cost share: Those farming for less than 10 years qualify for approximately 90 percent of the cost of purchasing qualifying supplies and installation costs, compared to about 70 percent cost share for others.
- Help from the University of Minnesota Extension to design the system.
Carlson keeps track of enterprise budgets, but he says he has not kept a level of detail that translates easily into “so much extra beef at $x per pound.” He says he and his university partners are most interested in testing the overall benefit of silvopasture for the region, in terms of production and environmental benefits, including water quality.
He hopes to eventually market the mature trees as timber, but that may take 60 years – a gift to grandchildren or future owners. In the meantime, he will plan to sell thinnings (maybe in 15 years) for paper pulp, fence posts or other uses.
Goals at Early Boots Farm
- Produce food in ways that sustains agriculture and regenerates the land.
- Manage risks.
o Carlson is looking for ways to increase agricultural resiliency and manage landowners’ risks by getting diversity back on the landscape. Bringing in perennial cropping systems is a way to mitigate various environmental conditions, including drought and heat, windstorms and other extremes, he says. “Silvopasture should help ameliorate these conditions by creating favorable microclimates for pasture and livestock.”
- Get into farming with low-capital start-up costs.
o A grass-fed beef operation was a relatively low-cost way to get started farming family land.
- Plant trees that are as large as you can afford. Larger trees are more resilient and stand up better to rubbing and browsing by cattle and deer.
- Plan the width between tree rows based on the width of your mower or other equipment you’ll want to use to manage the space.
- Get your pasture and soils in good shape before you plant trees. After the trees are planted it’s more difficult to work on the soil in the area.
- Integrate trees, fields, water with an eye to connecting habitats corridors for pollinators, other insects and wildlife. Carlson is planning his landscape design to help defragment a fragmented agricultural landscape, intentionally planting trees to connect areas of cover. His planning considerations also include managing edge effects to create viable areas of refuge, especially for birds.
- We need more good examples of these type of systems for the Midwest to help us learn what works – and what doesn’t work as well.
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). See http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/
- Center for Agroforestry, University of Missouri. Information on silvopasture management and design http://www.centerforagroforestry.org/practices/sp.php
- “New Ways for Old Terrain.” In Source, University of Minnesota Extension, Fall 2011. Article at http://www.extension.umn.edu/source/fall-2011/new-ways-for-old-terrain/#.TwSwYCyPB-s.email
- “Silvopasture: An Agroforestry Practice.” and “Working Trees for Wildlife.” Working Trees fact sheets. USDA Forest Service National Agroforestry Center. http://nac.unl.edu/Working_Trees/index.htm
- Silvopasture and Eastern Wild Turkey. Robinson, Jim. AF Notes 28, Feb. 2005. USDA NRCS and National Agroforestry Center & University of Nebraska-Lincoln. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=agroforestnotes
- July 2013. Case study created by Ann Y. Robinson for the Mid-American Agroforestry Working Group.