How to plant a silvopasture with All Seasons Farm
All Seasons Farm in Cashton, WI is home to 50 grass-fed dairy cattle managed by Tucker and Becky Gretebeck. They sell the milk to the Organic Valley Dairy Cooperative headquartered nearby. The farm is also home to a menagerie of adorable animals that has become a local petting zoo for the town. In May 2022, it added 1100 trees to its farm family.
When farmers plant trees purposefully in animal pastures, agroforesters call this practice silvopasture. The trees in the silvopasture system provide many benefits for the animals, the farmer and the local environment. Trees provide the animals with forage and shade, which means they spend more time grazing, leading to more milk for farmers. Once the trees mature in a few years, farmers can also choose to harvest tree nuts and timber for added farm income.
“What we’re doing today is another extension of our changing practices.”
– Tucker Gretebeck, All Seasons Farm
The Gretebecks hope the trees will provide another important benefit to the farm: resilience during floods. In 2018, ten to thirteen inches of rain flooded the area breaching a nearby dam. A wall of water washed away sheds, machinery and fences down by the pumpkin patch at All Seasons Farm. The trees along the pasture edge slid into the valley on the land and the water surge landed the Gretebeck’s wagon fifteen feet high in the tree canopy. The DNR had to rescue the wagon with a lift. Insurance, however, covered little of the flood damage.
The deep, perennial roots of trees planted in carefully plotted lines along the contours of the hills can hold in and bind up the soil, which help prevent erosion during heavy rains. All Seasons Farm sits among the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, on top of the Mississippi River watershed. The Gretebecks’ work to protect soil and water quality is important to the entire region and beyond.
Planting a thousand trees on the landscape is a big project. It took a lot of planning and collaboration leading up to the sunny May morning when volunteers showed up to plant trees. The Savanna Institute helped All Seasons Farm design the silvopasture through its technical support program, which provides free advising to landowners in Wisconsin and Illinois.
The Nature Conservancy provided a grant through Monroe County to fund the project and Organic Valley supported it as part of its sustainability work and to see how the silvopasture can benefit farmers in the cooperative. Wisconsin Land + Water, the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force, and the Monroe County Land Conservation Department all joined in to partner on the agroforestry project.
Over the course of one May day, a group of a dozen volunteers from the partnering organizations gathered to plant trees and transform the landscape into a silvopasture. Here’s how we did it.
Prepping the Land
Before we arrived, Tucker had already prepped the land, clearing out areas of sod where the trees were planned for planting. Grass is the biggest competition for a young tree and removing a 3-foot diameter area of sod will help set the new trees up for success.
The partners gathered our materials: shovels, stakes and a small stake pounder, tree tubes, twist wires, and netting hats. We loaded three different types of trees into the back of a 4-wheeler and set out for the pasture. On this particular landscape, our technical service providers recommended black walnut, hybrid poplar, and honeylocust.
The herd of cows were clearly curious about what was happening in their pasture. A crowd gathered to observe the tree planting demonstration led by Matt Wilson from the Savanna Institute and Bob Micheel from Monroe County.
Digging a hole
In the area cleared of sod, a volunteer with a shovel dug a hole. Another stood by ready to add the tree. It was important that the hole was deep enough so the roots could hang straight down. Any bend upward in the roots, called j-rooting, would make it hard for the tree to get established.
Planting a tree
Holding the tree straight in the hole, another volunteer filled in the dirt around it, then pressed the soil firmly around it to prevent any air pockets from forming around the roots.
Adding a stake
About four inches away from the tree on the side facing the wind, another volunteer pounded a stake into the ground. The stake holds up the tree tube and adds another barrier between the tree and the elements.
Adding a tree tube
Tree tubes are long plastic tubes that protect the young tree from animals while it is getting established. The tubes can also keep herbicide drift out, although that is not much of an issue at All Seasons Farm, which is certified organic.
Wiring the tree tube to the stake
Another volunteer tied 2-3 twist ties to keep the tree tube on the stake.
Adding a net on top
A net hat keeps song birds, who like to perch on top of the tree tubes, from falling in and getting stuck inside. When the tree starts to peek out of the top of the tree tube, the Gretebeck’s will pull the net hats off so that the branches of the tree can grow upright.
Mulching around the tree
As the final step, Tucker came through with a tractor and added chopped up hay as mulch around the base of the tree tube. This will help keep grass from growing around the tree base and keep the soil moist to help the tree get established.
Transforming the landscape
Our crew followed these steps hundreds of times across the landscape over the course of the day. The silvopasture totaled 1100 trees when it was all said and done, and the transformation on the landscape in one day was truly breathtaking. The trees looked like they were meant to be there all along, and it was inspiring to think about what All Seasons Farm will look like ten years from now when the silvopasture develops its canopy. The Gretebecks are creating a legacy on their land that will benefit generations to come. And they made it happen by partnering for agroforestry.
More from Perennial AF
Before you begin an agroforestry project, ask yourself one question: “Who are my partners?” Our new Partnering for Agroforestry series highlights nine examples of partnerships that have made agroforestry possible. Our latest podcast episode features the voices from...
Eliza Greenman is a farmer, “fruit explorer”, and Savanna Institute staff member based in Virginia. In addition to working with the Savanna Institute to identify the best tree crops and cultivars for our research and plant breeding programs, Eliza is in the midst of...
Agroforestry is, in a nutshell, farming with trees. But agroforestry, which is considered one of the earliest forms of agriculture and has been practiced by indigenous peoples around the world for generations, can take many forms. A renewed interest in agroforestry...