Graduate student research connects Wisconsin farmers to new ideas for land management

By Meghan Chua


From February through June, we will be highlighting the ways that UW–Madison changes lives for the better throughout the state of Wisconsin. April’s theme is Working for Rural Wisconsin. Watch for more at #UWChangesLives on social media. And here’s how you can help.

On Honey Creek Farm in Green Lake County, there is a roughly eight-acre patch of wooded land in addition to the open pasture. Farmer Jim Quick raises grass-fed beef and is looking into a way to let his livestock graze the wooded part of his land while also revitalizing the woods.

“We have not been using it for much of anything for the past 10, 15 years, and it’s gotten just overrun with buckthorn,” an invasive plant, Quick said. “Without the buckthorn, it’s a fairly open woods…but that woods needs to be utilized for its own health.”

Quick has become interested in the managed integration of his livestock with trees and forage, known as silvopasture. Diane Mayerfeld and Keefe Keeley, both graduate students at UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, study silvopasture and, in the course of their studies, share that knowledge with farmers across Wisconsin.

“What we’re aiming for is a way to improve the condition of those lands and make it a more profitable part of the farm,” said Keeley, who is from the Kickapoo Valley region.

Silvopasture is more than letting cows into the woods to graze. It’s intentionally integrating grazing herds with woodland management, such as thinning out the canopy in an existing forest to allow more light to reach the ground, and then planting it with grass or other forage.

A student pushes a measurement instrument into the ground in a semi-wooded area.
Nelson Institute graduate student Diane Mayerfeld takes soil resistance measurements.

Mayerfeld’s current experiment, taking place at the Lancaster Agricultural Research Station in Grant County, seeks to determine how silvopasture could be applied in woodlands that have not been properly managed in the past. Both Mayerfeld and Keeley said that if a farmer has woods that are of high timber value, or home to a strong native ecosystem, the woods should be managed for those characteristics first.

In cases where silvopasture makes sense, Mayerfeld investigates what the environmental and animal welfare impacts could be. So far, she has found that animals like to spend time in the shade, especially in the middle of the day, even when temperatures are in the 70s and low 80s. When temperatures and humidity are high, access to shade reduces physical signs of stress, such as panting – a benefit that farmers like to see for their herds. Planting grass covers the soil and prevents plants like white snakeroot or pokeweed from taking over the site. Although those are native species, they can be toxic to cattle.

Mayerfeld is also looking at the impacts of silvopasture on soils. She has found that the top foot of soil in silvopasture plots is slightly more dense than the soil in ungrazed plots, and said that managing the amount of time livestock are in the shaded area is likely critical for maintaining soil health.

Through focus groups with Wisconsin farmers, she has learned that farmers have several reasons for letting livestock graze in their woodlands. The reasons mentioned most often are animal comfort, control of brush such as buckthorn, the desire to get use out of the land, and the tax benefits for land in agriculture. Under Wisconsin tax law, pasture is taxed at a lower rate than forest.

Keeley works directly on Wisconsin farms where the farmers want to try silvopasture. He has found that after removing invasive shrubs like honeysuckle and buckthorn, a combination of thinning the tree canopy, planting improved forages, and rotationally grazing cattle helps limit regrowth of those shrubs, while favoring the growth of the planted forages. It’s another outcome the farmers like to see.

Pigs stand in the foreground while small trees protected by white tubes grow in the background.
Nelson Institute graduate student Keefe Keeley has worked with farmer Jacob Marty of Green Fire Farm to plant young trees, shown here in white tubes, in a pasture to implement what’s known as silvopasture for Marty’s cattle, sheep, and hogs.

In addition to looking at converting existing woods to silvopasture, he has worked with farmers on another approach to establishing silvopasture: planting trees in a previously treeless pasture.

Keeley said working directly with farmers has allowed him to adapt his methods to the needs of the farmer and their herd, as well as see how silvopasture fits into the context of the individual farm.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to work in partnership with farmers on this research,” Keeley said. “Their insight and hard work have been instrumental in the experimentation that we’ve been doing.”

Rachel Bouressa, who raises direct-market, grass-fed beef on her farm in Waupaca County, was interested in silvopasture and wondered what research was available on the subject. She said while there hadn’t been a lot of research done in Wisconsin, she had seen silvopasture promoted in other areas of the U.S. Mayerfeld and Keeley are among the first to promote Wisconsin research on silvopasture to the state’s farmers.

“I know people that, because of some of their research, are adding it [to their farms],” Bouressa said. “It’s not that other people aren’t doing it; it’s having people in the state of Wisconsin promoting it. If there are people doing it you can go and look at it – you can see it on the landscape in your area.”

Plus, Bouressa said it’s important for farmers to be able to engage with researchers in face-to-face contexts, to answer questions and spur conversations. Ultimately, these opportunities for collaboration with others who have tried silvopasture – gained through field walks, conferences, and talks with neighboring farmers – help farmers determine what might work on their land.

Both Keeley and Mayerfeld have been organizing outreach activities to provide information to farmers who are interested in learning more. Last May, a field day that Keeley organized at one of the farms in his study drew about 50 people, despite drizzly and cold weather.

Mayerfeld has given talks on silvopasture at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference. Quick, of Honey Creek Farm, said he’s been impressed with Diane’s knowledge.

“I’ve liked attending her sessions. They’re inspirational,” Quick said. “She has a lot of passion for the practice of silvopasture and it shows in her presentations.”

Keeley and Mayerfeld continue to study how silvopasture might be managed on farms, which all have their own, unique characteristics, and how it could improve the farm’s economics. Silvopasture has also gained momentum in the agricultural community as an approach to sustainable land management.

Farmers who are interested in silvopasture should first have a professional forester assess the timber value on their land and the health of the natural ecosystem there, to determine whether it’s better to manage the land as a native ecosystem or as silvopasture. Keeley said woodlands that have been overharvested, overgrazed, or poorly managed in the past are best positioned to benefit from silvopasture, “and there’s a lot of land in Wisconsin where, unfortunately, that is the situation.”

Mayerfeld agreed.

“Agriculture is such an important part of our state, both directly in economic terms, but also [in terms of] retaining an agricultural landscape that supports our tourism industry and makes this a place where people want to live. Keeping animals grazing on the land in a way that supports our environment is really important to that,” she said.

Mayerfeld’s work was supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, Hatch project 1006564. Additional support provided by the Kickapoo Valley Reforestation Fund. Keeley’s work was supported by NIFA USDA McIntire-Stennis grant 169260 with additional support from USDA North-Central SARE, the Savanna Institute, Annie’s Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship, and UW University Fellowship.