- Panama ranchers practicing silvopasture are seeing financial gains through improved nutrition and increased stocking rates.
- Ranchers are able to seek funding to cover start-up costs by offering biodiversity services, carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.
- Quality education is crucial for increased conversion from traditional land clearing practices to regenerative silvopasture.
Panama cattle ranchers like Odielca Solis are shifting from traditional land clearing practices to intensive silvopasture. Sustainable farming programs led by groups such as Yale’s Environmental Leadership Training Institute (ELTI) are enabling the change, whilst ranchers who have already converted their practices are opening their properties as model farms.
Solis has seen improvements in her stocking rate through the implementation of intensive stock rotation and the increase of woody plants in her farming system offering higher nutrition forage. However the initial conversion to a silvopasture ranching system can cost up to $2,000 per hectare, or about $800 an acre - a prohibitive investment for the average Panama farmer. To help cover these costs ranchers have formed local associations and sought funding through global programs targeting climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration and biodiversity services.
Ongoing conversion of land from traditional clearing practices to silvopasture hinges on financial and environmental incentives and increased educational opportunities. Silvopasture systems need more robust scaling strategies than those on offer by farmers such as Solis. In addition, greater access to quality sustainable farming education is required for exisiting and aspiring Panama ranchers.
Ranching in Panama dates back to the 1500s, when Spanish settlers decided that cattle were the agricultural commodity that grew best in the tropical climate. However, this tradition has severely deforested the tropical nation and depleted its soil resources too, twin problems that are worsening in tandem with the effects of climate change.
After taking a sustainable ranching course taught by a Yale University-affiliated program in Panama and visiting some model farms, Solís became convinced that she could increase the profits from her ranching operation without needing more land or chemical inputs. A type of agroforestry, silvopasture is also highly rated as method of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
Solís started to see dramatic improvements in her production: a hectare of land under silvopasture, about 2.5 acres, now yields roughly the same profit as 3 hectares of plain traditional grass pasture — a figure encompassing the economic promise of silvopastoral systems.
“There is a wide range of silvopastoral systems with a huge variation in efficiency,” Zoraida Calle, of the Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production (CIPAV), tells Mongabay. She says a silvopasture system with sparse trees can be twice as profitable as a conventional ranch, while an intensive silvopasture system — complete with a high density of shrubs and shade trees — can be five times as profitable as a conventional ranch, or even more. “All of them are more profitable (and sustainable) than their conventional counterparts,” she says.
CIPAV’s Calle says Latin America will likely experience an expansion of silvopasture, but there are two main bottlenecks. First, there’s a need for incentives that compel farmers to adopt the practice. Second, the people who train farmers need better training themselves.
Without a robust scaling strategy, silvopasture systems might not take off, says Valentina Robiglio, a landscape ecologist with the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre, which supports implementation of agroforestry practices worldwide.