Silvopasture for Your Goats: A Full Guide

With the sharp rise in people moving away from urban and suburban living, and heading back to a more sustainable and agrarian lifestyle, permaculture practices are fast becoming a trending topic.

goat foraging leaves from a tree
alpine goat foraging leaves from a tree

Most folks that want to head out into the country and set up a homestead to call their own get animals of one kind or another, and goats are as ever an affordable and versatile standby when it comes to livestock. And as with most ruminant animals, goats do best when they are given plenty of land to graze on…

One technique for grazing goats, and other livestock animals, that has proven to have major benefits is silvopasture, the practice of growing beneficial trees and edible forage on the same parcel in a manner that will help plants, land, and livestock in kind.

Although it’s somewhat more complicated than traditional open pasture methods, the rewards are tremendous. In time it can make taking care of both animals and land easier than ever. And silvopasture isn’t just good for goats; it works wonderfully if you raise sheep, cows or other grazers.

Keep reading, and I’ll be telling you everything you need to know to get your goats going with exciting silvopasture possibilities.

What Exactly Is Silvopasture?

Simply stated, silvopasture is a practice, a set of techniques, not a thing. It consists of combining the growing of edible forage- grass, plants, etc.- and trees together, letting your animals graze on both. This results in the mutual benefit of all and, of course, your benefit as well!

In short, you might think that it is simply letting your goats browse on any land that has trees growing on it, but that isn’t the case.

Untended, unmanaged grazing of wild-growth trees and forests is exactly that, whereas silvopasture requires the deliberate implementation of edible forage among cultivated trees.

It also requires knowledge, skills and effort to tend the land properly, the same way you would for any other pastureland.

If you’re all already familiar with those techniques, silvopasture will make a lot of sense to you though it will require a new approach. If you aren’t familiar with land- and pasture management skills, you’ve got a lot to learn…

Main Benefits

Silvopasture is becoming a very hot concept here lately even at a small scale for homesteaders. This is because it has so many benefits for your goats!

I’m not exaggerating when I say that could completely change the way that you run your homestead and approach caring for your animals.

Improved Animal Comfort Year-round

Silvopasture practices invariably provide better comfort for your goats, and any other animals.

For starters, a properly managed canopy of trees will allow goats to have shade when they want it, sunlight when they don’t, and also enjoy windbreaks that can protect them and keep them warmer in the winter time or just help shield them from high wind events.

This is great because we want our animals to be happy, yes, but don’t forget the bottom line: Happier, more comfortable animals are also healthier and more productive ones. That means more meat, more milk, and fewer medical expenses.

Something else to consider: your female goats will fail to go into heat if they are dealing with too much heat stress; letting them live and browse under the shade of a canopy will increase reproductive success in kind.

Better Nutrition

Silvopasture beats typical open pasture hands-down when it comes to nutrition. This is especially vital for goats because they are browsers and not purely grazers.

Compared to sheep and cows which can just eat the same thing all the time, goats like to nibble on the choicest bits of different plants throughout the day. That means grass, twigs, bark, berries, buds, flowers, etc.

When you implement silvopasture, you’re basically installing a sort of buffet for your goats, allowing them to eat what they want from many different kinds of plant matter, but the important thing is that it is all healthy and beneficial plant matter that you’ve chosen and cultivated.

Greatly Reduced Feed Costs Over Time

Most goat herders see free-ranging and grazing as ways to reduce feed costs. Your goats will always need hay or pellets and other supplemental foods, but anything you can do to shore up your bottom dollar is beneficial.

But with silvopasture, your goats will have such abundance and diversity in healthy foods that you will dramatically cut down on your feed costs and get healthier goats in the bargain.

They’ll be able to eat from standing and fallen trees, fruit, branches, leaves, shrubs, grass and any other beneficial plants that you grow. This is a whole lot better for them than just eating grass all day long out in a field.

Additional Income Streams

Don’t forget that all of these different plants you’ll be growing in your silvopasture can benefit you directly in other ways, too.

Trees can be allowed to mature and then cut down to be sold for lumber and fruit trees, of course, can give you a bountiful harvest for your own consumption or to be sold to wholesalers or directly at the market. The same goes for lots of other plants if you use a rotational strategy.

Remember that silvopasture is an integrated grazing strategy, and it maximizes the efficient use of land in addition to all of the other benefits discussed.

Growing the right kind of trees with the right strategy can give you yet another reliable source of income, or more than one, on the same amount of land.

Willow, alder and poplar are excellent trees for silvopasture since they grow so quickly; that gets their greenery out of reach of hungry goats more quickly! Pine species are also a reliable choice, though most don’t grow quite as quick as the others mentioned.

Black- and honey locust particularly are good options for goats since every part of the tree is edible by them, but that can obviously make things challenging while you are getting the trees established!

Easier Pasture Sustainment

Probably my single favorite benefit that silvopasture provides is it makes pasture sustainment much easier.

Because your trees are shading the grass and also dropping beneficial litter and detritus to help sustain and nourish the soil, you won’t have to work so hard to keep the grass in your pasture growing and healthy. In short, your land will do a much better job of taking care of itself.

One of the biggest advantages of silvopasture is that you’ll see a huge reduction in the amount of chemicals you need to use to maintain your land.

When you have an ecosystem of various trees and other plants, plus your goats and other animals living and eating there, you won’t need to use nearly as much (or any!) pesticide and herbicide to keep your property in good shape.

This, of course, is a huge net benefit for the environment, for your goats and also for you!

Plus, as mentioned, your goats won’t just be munching away at the grass until it is utterly destroyed. They’ll eat a little bit of grass, move on to some other plants, nibble on trees, get some fruit, etc.

This incentivizes the goats to move on and eat other things rather than wiping out the single source of food that is there- that always necessitates reseeding and replanting when it happens!

Nubian goats walking on dirt road
Nubian goats walking on dirt road

Greater Wildlife Diversity and Ecological Stability

The more trees and plants you have in a given place, the more kinds of animal life you’ll also have. You’ll have birds in the trees, various bugs crawling around on various plants, and other small creatures besides.

Those bugs and birds serve their own vital purposes in the ecosystem. These creatures in turn will attract other creatures, and you’ll soon notice that nature is once again living in harmony thanks to your procedures.

This isn’t only an ethical mandate, but it’s also a practical benefit: Your land and all the surrounding lands will benefit from this greater diversity of wildlife, and accordingly, ecological stability will be increased.

This means that the land can go a lot longer before it’s exhausted and must be rested and allowed to regenerate, and soil nutrient levels will remain balanced for far, far longer.

The Different Types of Silvopasture

Silvopasture techniques have a couple of different varieties, mostly categorized by how the pasture is integrated or cultivated.

Natural

Natural silvopasture techniques involve the cultivation of foods that animals like in a natural, as-is woodland setting.

Note that this is distinct from simply turning your goats loose in the nearby woods to eat: here you are also improving those woods to make life more comfortable and appealing to the goats!

Basically, if you have a woody patch or a glade on your property already, all you might need to do is thin out some of the trees to let a little more light in, cut down troublesome trees, and then start growing the right kinds of grass and other plants under the canopy before letting the goats move in.

The downside to the natural approach is that your trees won’t be evenly spaced, and the pasture itself will often need considerable improvement to make it hospitable and safe for your goats.

Rows

Row-type silvopasture are exactly what you are thinking. Basically, it looks like an orchard but spread out a little bit more than usual.

Trees are planted in evenly spaced rows that will facilitate the harvesting of fruit and other products they produce, and also make it easy to install paddocks or temporary enclosures to more effectively rotate your goats around.

Obviously, most places don’t naturally have trees growing in nice, tidy rows, and so you must be prepared to plant them yourself. This, naturally, is a long-term commitment but the payoffs down the road can be substantial.

Clumps

Clump-style silvopasture involves clumps, or copses, of trees to make smaller, separated pastures. This is another good rotational strategy and often easier to implement since you can cut back or remove just a few unneeded trees to produce the clumps which will then be managed as individual units.

If you already have a few scattered stands of trees on your property, this allows you to implement the procedures quicker with less work compared to going with rows or tackling an actual patch of forest as with the natural type above.

Are there Any Drawbacks to Implementing Silvopasture Practices?

Now, as good as silvopasture is, and as highly as I can recommend it, there are still some downsides you’ve got to be aware of and work to manage or overcome.

Potentially Great Upfront Costs

One of the biggest hurdles to implementing silvopasture is that the upfront costs can be significant. If you’re starting from bare land, you’ve got to buy trees or plant seeds and then care for them and protect them to help them grow.

Likewise, compatible and beneficial forage in the form of pasture grass, legumes and other goat-edible plants must be introduced if they aren’t there already.

Existing trees must be cut down, thinned out, treated and so forth, and the surrounding area will need to be “hogged out” through forestry mulching if it is badly overgrown, and that can entail significant costs per acre.

Growing Suitable Trees from Seedlings Takes Decades

If you’re going to cheap route, you’re going the slow route: Seeds for trees cost next to nothing, but it will be decades before they’re tall enough to both support your goats and help sustain your pasture efforts.

Buying larger trees and saplings is possible, but this geometrically increases costs. Obviously, you won’t have this problem if you already have suitable and mature trees on your property.

Saplings Must Be Protected

If you are planting or growing young trees, do everything that you can to protect them from your goats, especially if you’re already letting your them graze or loaf around in the area.

Many goats can eat young, tender and tasty saplings right down to the roots, and that means all of the time, money and effort you invested into planting them is going right down the drain- or I should say down the gullet!

free-ranging goats and a horse
free-ranging goats and a horse

The Right Plants Must be Introduced and the Wrong Ones Culled

If your goats are going to enjoy a wide variety of edible plants, you’ve got to introduce those plants. This means you’ll have to do your homework, as these must be nutritious and safe but also compatible growing next to and around whatever trees you’ve chosen…

Likewise, you can count on grass growing in a properly established silvopasture, but making sure that it can still get enough sunlight while the trees can still provide adequate shade and windbreaks for your goats can be tricky.

As always, you must purge the pasture of any harmful or toxic plants that goats might eat, and compared to a typical open pasture, you’ll have a lot more to learn with silvopasturing.

Not All Land Works for Silvopasture Practices

Sadly, not all land is suitable for silvopasture practices, especially concerning your goats. Steep slopes, rocky ground or marginal soil that won’t support the growth and health of large trees will obviously make the whole affair a no-go unless you just want to throw good money after bad.

Pasture Management Can Be More Difficult

More components to your pasture means there is more to learn, more to prepare for, and potentially more problems to take care of. Now you’ll be worried about the health of your trees and other plants along with potential diseases that can affect them.

Likewise, the trees themselves can be problematic when they drop branches that will crush fences and let your goats out or topple over into one another or, potentially, smash your goats.

All of this can be accounted for with the right maintenance schedule, but you’re going to have more to do, at least initially.

Containing Goats with Fencing is Often More Difficult

Depending on the placement of the trees on your property, fencing in your goats in a silvopasture can be more challenging. This is because your goats are more than capable of climbing up or kicking off of trees to hop over fences.

And, as mentioned above, toppling trees and falling branches can damage or destroy fencing that can let all of your goats jailbreak and head off into the countryside.

It’s possible to mitigate this factor by keeping your trees well away from the proposed perimeter of a pasture, but this isn’t the most efficient use of your land.

How Can You Create a Silvopasture on Your Property?

You have a fundamental choice to make if you want to create silvopasture on your property.

If you have existing trees already, you’ll need to integrate pasture into woods. The challenge here is the effort and cost needed to clear out the undergrowth, trim the trees to let enough but not too much lighting, and then get the plants growing under the canopy.

The alternative is if you are starting from bare ground, or a pasture that just has grass in it. Here, you must integrate trees into pasture, and then protect them until they are a suitable size to withstand the goats and stand on their own.

This is more straightforward, but obviously takes far, far longer until you’re able to reap the benefits.

Reliable Water Access Must Still Be Provided

One last thing. Don’t forget that you must still provide plenty of water to your goats when using silvopasture. Yes, they’ll have a lot more to eat, but they won’t have any more to drink, likely!

Depending on the location of your pasture, this means that supplying them with water can be more laborious and difficult.

Often the very best water sources for silvopasturing are natural ones; ponds, creeks, streams and springs will benefit the landscape and your animals.

However, keeping them free of contamination (especially contamination originating from off your property) can be challenging, and if your area isn’t getting enough rainfall they can get low enough, quickly enough, that your animals won’t be able to use them for drinking water so you’ve got to have a backup plan.

Tanks are as ever a reliable option, but one with their own logistical challenges.

Unless you can set up intricate rain-catching systems, and keep them clear of debris from the trees, you’ll have to refill these one way or another. I know lots of folks that love silvopasture, but grumble about having to truck water out to the tanks periodically….

Also, you can make a great case for concrete tanks in this setting because they hold up better to incidental dings and dents from falling branches and other accidents.

Whatever kind of tank you install, put a cover on it to keep leaves, seeds, acorns and bird poop out of it!

Piping water directly from your source to your watering station for your animals to make use of is likewise viable, but the distance from your source to the pasture will likely be the determining factor, and terrain will also play a part in the complexity and expense of such an installation.

And, as a rule of thumb, your water should be in the pasture no more than 600 feet from any grazable location, or 600 feet (182 meters) from the next water source if your pasture is very large; this will help to prevent overgrazing which always occurs as your goats will tend to eat heavily from the immediate area around the water.

Regardless of the complexities, this is something that you must account for, and your goats must have access to an unlimited supply of fresh, clean water at all times.

The trees present in your pasture will likely need more frequent cleanings and changes depending on the setup, but it is something you must do to keep your herd healthy.

Like I said earlier, going the silvopasture route makes things a little different, but I promise you it’s so worth it!

Silvopasture for Goats Pinterest image

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