Author: Lisa Palmer
Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts.
The plants provide his 90 head of cattle with vertical layers of grazing, leading to twice the milk and meat production per acre while reducing the amount of land needed to raise them. His operation is part of a trend globally to sustainably coax more food from each acre — without chemicals and fertilizers — while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing biodiversity, and enhancing the land’s ability to withstand the effects of climate change.
Livestock and their food needs take up 30 percent of land globally, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In Colombia, where cattle occupy 80 percent of agricultural area, pastures have contributed to soil degradation and deforestation and, in dry areas, have hastened desertification, according to Julián Chará, a researcher at the Center for Research in Sustainable Systems of Agriculture, CIPAV, in Cali, Colombia. But a new paradigm is emerging. Land conservation is happening alongside livestock production.
In Colombia, Molina’s brand of so-called “sustainable intensification” is the favored agroforestry practice for livestock production. Agroforestry cultivates trees with food crops or livestock, while farmers make use of the trees’ ecological benefits. Plantains grow above shade-loving coffee. Valuable hardwoods like oak grow in alleys next to corn and wheat.
“People don’t think of ranching when they think of agroforestry,” says David Cleary, strategy director for agriculture at The Nature Conservancy. “But what is happening in Colombia is a reminder that you have to have a broader definition of agroforestry and make it work with any number of agricultural systems. In Colombia, silvopastoral systems are favored because they can work for both smallholder farms as well as large, private-sector-style ranching.”