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Moving cattle into the forest could help climate change, farmers and the livestock

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

If you see a cow out grazing in the Midwest, most likely it's in an open pasture that used to be a forest. Clear-cutting trees made it easier to raise cattle. It also eliminated much of the landscape known as Midwestern Savannas. As Saint Louis Public Radio's Jonathan Ahl reports, an experimental farm in Missouri is trying to prove that moving grazing animals back to forests is better for the environment, for farmers and for cattle.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Ashley Conway-Anderson is driving a four-wheeler down a dirt road on one of the University of Missouri's research farms. On the left side of the road is a thick forest. On the right side is a big open pasture, where cows are huddled under the few trees that are along a creek bed. The professor of agroforestry says neither side is what should be there. Conway-Anderson says before Europeans arrived, all of this was a forest, but much less dense than what's on one side of the road.

ASHLEY CONWAY-ANDERSON: That habitat was created intentionally by a lot of Indigenous communities that lived here, intentionally managed with fire. And then once fire opened things up, what came next was grass. And then what followed the grass was large grazing herbivores.

AHL: Those herbivores were bison and elk. But Conway-Anderson says they could be cows today. She's leading a multi-year study at this farm to first thin out the forest areas, get native grasses growing and then bring in cows to graze. It's called silvopasture, and it's a very old way of raising animals. Conway-Anderson says her research is getting more attention because healthy forests can be a critical part of combating climate change. Trees are good at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, and they're also resilient in the face of extreme weather caused by climate change.

CONWAY-ANDERSON: When we do have floods, when we do have droughts and fires, it won't be wholesale destruction. It will be able to recover much more quickly.

AHL: Conway-Anderson says she wants to get the data and create an example to help farmers move their cattle from open fields into forests. She says it should be a short trip because so many want to and some already are.

Bruce Carney raises cattle on his family farm north of Des Moines. More than 10 years ago, he decided to convert 200 acres from corn and soybean fields to land for cattle to graze on.

BRUCE CARNEY: What I learned was that I needed trees. I needed windbreaks. I needed shade. I needed a living barn. To me, that's what trees do for you.

AHL: Carney says silvopasture development is a success because trees make cows happier, healthier and bigger, so they bring in more money when they're sold.

Kaitie Adams with the Wisconsin-based Savanna Institute says it can also make small farms more viable.

KAITIE ADAMS: By its very nature is - it's intentional and intensive, so it allows for us to do more on one piece of land.

AHL: Adams says silvopasture can combine raising cattle, growing food like apples or walnuts and a timber business all into one small piece of land. There are a lot of challenges to making a go of having cattle graze in forests, including the time it takes for trees to grow, the inefficiency of raising cattle that graze as opposed to a factory farm, and the time and effort to manage a forest properly. But advocates say it's worth it, and they're optimistic they can prove it.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl in Rolla, Mo.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEARS' "THE ASSASSINATION OF DOW JONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonathan Ahl