Alley cropping and silvopasture are both hot topics in agroforestry and permaculture. Unfortunately, their names don’t do a great job of explaining what they are. So what are these two confusing-sounding systems? What do they have to offer an agricultural operation?
Alley cropping is an agricultural method where crops are planted in between rows of trees. While the crops can be harvested and replanted each year, the trees take several years to produce a crop. Silvopasture, on the other hand, is a system where animals are grazed in between rows of trees. Both systems provide both a short- and long-term harvest and many other significant benefits.
In the rest of this article, we’ll talk more about alley cropping and silvopasture and the differences between them.
What Is Alley Cropping?
Alley cropping is a method of growing crops for a harvest. While some forms of agriculture—such as monoculture—rely on a single crop for their harvest, alley cropping enables a farmer to have two separate types of harvests from one section of land.
When implementing alley cropping, farmers plant several rows of trees. In between the trees, farmers plant crops that can be harvested in one season. While almost any single-season crop can be planted in what are called the “alley rows,” here are some common choices:
- Forage for animals, such as orchard grass, alfalfa, or rye grass
- Cash crops, such as soybeans, corn, or potatoes
- Vegetables for human consumption, such as asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, or peas
The type of trees planted can also vary greatly. Fruit trees are popular, as they will eventually bear large quantities of edible fruits. However, some farmers successfully utilize non-fruiting trees—such as oak, chestnut, and pine—in their alley cropping fields.
The Benefits Of Alley Cropping
So what’s the point of planting trees and crops near each other? There are many benefits, but let’s talk about some major ones.
First of all, alley cropping allows farmers to experience more than one type of harvest from a single field. In traditional monoculture fields, only one crop is harvested. In alley cropping, however, the harvest is diversified, helping to protect the farmer in case of crop losses.
Another key benefit of alley cropping is that it can improve crop health naturally. For example, peas love cooler weather and shade—so when planned carefully, the trees between the alley rows can provide much-needed shade for pea plants in the heat of the summer. In turn, the trees are benefited by the nitrogen-fixing peas, who make vital nutrients more readily available for the trees.
Trees can provide a necessary wind break for delicate crops. Vegetables like peppers dislike wind; by providing shelter from the wind, trees can help these crops thrive and may even increase their production.
Lastly, alley cropping can help decrease nitrogen runoff into nearby streams and rivers. One of the major problems facing the agricultural industry is fertilizer runoff; when trees are planted between crop rows, excess nitrogen is absorbed and utilized by the trees. This improves the health of both the trees and the nearby water sources.
The Drawbacks Of Alley Cropping
Of course, no agricultural practice is perfect. Here are a few of the potential drawbacks of utilizing an alley cropping system.
Alley cropping may require more manual labor than other types of agriculture. For example, the trees will need to be pruned regularly; this is best done by hand, rather than with machinery. Because of this, the farmer will have to hire out or complete this work by hand.
Another issue farmers who practice alley cropping may face is reduced crop production. While alley cropping can increase yields when planned and executed properly, poor planning may actually lower the amount of production.
If the wrong trees are planted next to a specific crop, for example, they may cause too much competition for nutrients or provide an excess of shade that can prevent the crops from getting the sunlight they need to thrive.
What Is Silvopasture?
Silvopasture has a lot in common with alley cropping, but it also has a unique characteristic: it uses animals in conjunction with rows of trees to create two sources of production and income. Much like in alley cropping, trees are planted (often in rows) on a plot of land.
Instead of cash crops, though, silvopastures contain forage for grazing livestock. This is typically either native pasture grasses or specially-planted forage crops like clover or alfalfa.
Animals are then grazed in a rotational pattern throughout the pasture. Animals will spend a day to a week in a small portion of the pasture and are then moved to a new section on a regular basis. This allows the animals to graze the area intensely without leaving them so long that they destroy the forage or trees.
A wide variety of animals are used in silvopasture, but here are some of the most common:
- Wild animals (such as deer, elk, bison, etc.)
Benefits Of Silvopasture
Implementing silvopasture in an agricultural operation can offer a whole host of benefits. Let’s discuss a few of them.
Silvopasture can help offset costs for farmers. By offering grazing leases for livestock owners, silvopasture farmers can receive much-needed cash to make it through the season. This boost in income can also help pay for planting and maintaining the trees until they produce a viable harvest of their own.
Animals can play an important role in increasing soil fertility. By grazing animals on small sections of a pasture, an incredible amount of natural fertilizer will be added to the soil. The rest a section of land receives once the animals move on to a new pasture allows the land to recover and continue to produce forage.
The trees in a silvopasture system can offer important benefits for the animals, too. They can provide necessary shade—an absolute must for animals prone to heat stroke—when man-made shelters are not available.
They can also provide valuable forage for the animals, helping to add variety to their diet. According to this Rutgers University study, free-range or pastured eggs contain more vitamins and nutrients than commercial eggs. Researchers believe this is because of the increased variety in a free-range hen’s diet: the more variety in an animal’s diet, the healthier they are.
Drawbacks Of Silvopasture
Similar to alley cropping, silvopasture agriculture requires more manual labor than normal grazing operations. Trees must be regularly pruned, protected, and watered in some cases depending on the livestock you’re grazing; pastures must be moved every few days to give the animals access to fresh forage.
When managed improperly, animals may cause great harm to the trees in the silvopasture operation. Goats, for example, love to rip the bark off of trees if they aren’t offered enough other forage or moved on a regular basis, which may destroy the trees.
Planting dozens of trees is also a huge financial undertaking. This can be a large and seemingly unsustainable burden on farmers who are just beginning their operation.
The Difference Between Alley Cropping And Silvopasture
Now that we’ve discussed alley cropping and silvopasture separately, it’s easy to see the difference between them: alley cropping integrates crops and trees while silvopasture instead utilizes animals and trees. They both work to improve the land while producing two separate forms of income, but they use different methods to achieve this goal.
Alley Cropping Or Silvopasture: Which Is Right For Me?
Deciding between implementing alley cropping or silvopasture to your agricultural operation can be a daunting task. The good news is that both methods are incredibly beneficial and can be lucrative when managed properly.
If you don’t have access to large farm equipment—seeders, combines, etc.—silvopasture may be the right choice for you. Because alley cropping involves regularly harvesting crops, you may need access to large equipment to get the job done.
Likewise, if you are particularly interested in using animals to improve the soil fertility on your land, silvopasture is a perfect fit. While many plants can improve soil health over time, properly-managed animals can speed up the process significantly.
On the other hand, alley cropping is perfect for those who don’t want to have to regularly rotate animals through a piece of land. While crops also require precise care, they don’t need to be carefully monitored as animals do.
Alley cropping may be perfect for you if you have existing cropland. Implementing alley cropping is as simple as planting rows of trees between your already-growing crops. If you already have pasture land that’s being used to graze animals, silvopasture may be the better option.
Alley cropping and silvopasture are both beneficial agricultural practices. They can improve your soil health, increase your yields, and offer a secondary source of income. Whether you decide to add silvopasture or alley cropping to your agricultural operation, you’ll be impressed with the return on investment in just a few short years.