Another locust to consider for your silvopasture is honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos L). Robert Marsh in southwest Missouri has experimented with several types of trees but the primary species in his silvopasture is thornless honey locust.
Robert has been managing livestock on his farm, Floral Hill Farm in southwest Missouri, for over 30 years. Over these 30 years he has been experimenting with tree crops and silvopasture as ways to improve productivity and sustainability on his farm. Currently, his silvopasture encompasses a 20-acre bottom field, Huntington Silt-Loam, in which half of the 20 acres are prone to seasonal flooding. Robert raises Katahdin sheep and lamb is his primary market, but he also raises a few steers for friends and family.
As opposed to more “traditional silvopasture” where trees may be evenly spaced across a pasture, Robert chose to keep his trees widely spaced (Figure 1). The rows are one-hundred feet apart with trees spaced twenty to thirty feet apart within the rows. This design allows Robert to be more flexible with how he utilizes the open areas. One reason for keeping open areas, is for ease of maneuvering equipment, particularly for haying, which would be less practical with grid-spaced trees. Also, since Robert is primarily a livestock farmer, this design seems to lessen the compromise between forages and shade, as forage production is generally reduced in shaded environments. Overtime, the “alleyways” will become more shaded, which will impact forage production and may begin to favor species that are more adaptable to shaded environments. Although forage production may lessen with shade, forage quality does tend to increase in shade. In addition, pod production may help balance any reductions in forage production due to shading. Overall, Robert has designed his silvopasture to be more practical and flexible for ease in management, as opposed to a design with the goal of maximizing production.
The thornless honey locust has several benefits on Robert’s farm. Robert notes that during a drought, the forage under the honey locust remains green while forage suffers under direct sun. Honey locust has a deep taproot growing down 3-6 m deep allowing for honey locust to thrive on some lighter soils. In addition, the thornless honey locust that Robert has planted are a variety known for pod production. The seedpods have nutritional value comparable to whole-ear dent corn. Both ground pods and seeds are highly digestible (78.7 and 96.3%, respectively), and seeds, with over 20% crude protein, provide some additional protein to grazing lambs. Superior cultivars chosen for high yields can produce nearly 1000 pounds of seedpods per tree annually. Honey locust is also a legume and adds nitrogen to the soil benefiting forage production and overall soil heath. Note that while the planted trees are thornless, the seeds from them may or may not produce thornless seedlings. However, any seedlings that germinate can also be grazed by sheep and cattle.
Robert prefers long narrow pastures; this serves three purposes: First, the fence defines the side boundaries for each pasture. Second, each one-hundred-foot-wide pasture can be easily subdivided into smaller paddocks by running temporary electric fencing between the fences in the boundary rows. Third, the fence provides for a simple method of protecting the trees from browsing. At each tree, a loop of wire is connected to the electric fence and encircles the tree, preventing livestock from overgrazing the browse. This “two-birds-with-one-stone” approach is a common theme for most things on Robert’s farm and is a big key to his success. Several tips for how Robert set up his pastures and fencing are in a video created by Missouri NRCS and the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, which you can find here.
Robert Marsh has created a diverse, productive, and sustainable farm using practical and well thought out techniques. His operation is a shining example of how silvopasture can be tailored to fit multiple objectives while maintaining flexibility.
Robert is frequently asked how or where interested producers can obtain thornless honey locusts for high pod production for their farms. He has created the summary and list below:
There are 4 named varieties that were selected many years ago, Calhoun, Ashworth, Hershey and Millwood (note that Millwood is “mostly thornless”, some have small thorns more like a black locust but NOT like a native honey locust). I have planted all 4, obtained from 2 different sources decades ago. Recently, I have been producing my own trees.
- It has been recognized by many sources that more work needs to be done toward finding, selecting, and breeding additional improved varieties selected for high pod production.
- Unfortunately, all the nurseries that I have used in the past are either out of business or have quit producing grafted honey locusts. If you search the internet, you will find several nurseries that have these 4 listed, as “out of stock” (and they have been out of stock for years).
- Learn to graft!
- If you have thorny trees, cut and graft. The only place I know that grafting stock is currently commercially available is Fruitwood Nursery There are many sources of thornless NO-POD trees available, plant where you want and then graft.
- There is some good information for grafting honey locust from Winrock International, you can find here:
- LOOK in your local woods each fall for trees heavy with pods, and see if there are any thorns (remember, many thorny trees get less thorns as they get older so you may have to look close). And be sure to look at the base, as it has been reported that mature trees may have thornless upper branches, that when grafted produce thornless trees.
- Root cuttings can be taken from thornless trees. I have recently read that both softwood and hard wood cuttings can be rooted (and have been told that they cannot), will be trying in the near future.
- Seedlings: The pods are great nutrition, the seeds pass through cattle, and 20% or so pass through sheep. Find seedlings wild close to native thornless trees in the spring and transplant (EASY to do!), if they end up with thorns, GRAFT. I have hundreds come up in my winter feeding areas each spring, thousands more in the fields. These are easy to pot up. Most end up seedless.
- Consider collecting pods from every heavily podded tree you see (they tend to alternate year produce, so look at least 2 years in a row), I have found many trees loaded with pods in the city – older varieties of thornless ornamental trees (planted before all the thornless / podless trees were created) and start in garden beds.
- Search for current research: they may have some extra trees available.