One rancher’s approach to drought? Plant more trees.

An experimental silvopasture in Bayfield could reduce water consumption

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Marikay Shellman shows members of the Southwest Conservation Corps working on her 40-acre farm near Bayfield which brush to clear on June 5. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

For 47 years, Marikay Shellman has been hopping irrigation ditches at Magpie Acres, her 40-acre farm outside Bayfield.

The maze of ditches snake around her pastures. Shellman still flood-irrigates her property by hand, barricading channels to direct water to certain fields.

Some pastures contain acres of prairie grasses, their fibrous stems mingling alongside blooming huddles of clover and dandelion. On the far side of the farmhouse, a pair of mature, fruiting apricot trees watch over a flooded pasture with 10 currant trees, and a pair of cherry and crab apples.

“You’re going to have to pull the water out of here, they’re drowning,” said Shellman’s daughter, Megan Shellman-Rickard, as the two stood among the saplings.

“I just turned it in – I’m trying to do it once every two weeks,” Shellman replied, assuaging her daughter’s concerns.

As the duo roam the ranch, Shellman rattles off the insects, amphibians and birds she has seen on her property since she stopped using fertilizers and began to intentionally cultivate biodiversity in the 1990s.

On June 5, World Environmental Day, Shellman walked rounds on her property to check in with the crew from the Southwest Conservation Corps that was there to oversee the next step in her initiative to ranch more sustainably: tree planting.

On the southeastern border of her property, a small unit of brown-clad high school students gently pressed Scotch pine saplings into the ground. When mature, the trees will act as a wind barrier to protect the ranch’s many inhabitant, large and small.

Cedar Bremmer, a member of the Southwest Conservation Corps crew working on Magpie Acres, plants a Scotch pine that will one day serve as a wind barrier on Marikay Shellman’s property. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

But the trees will serve a wider, and wetter, purpose.

Planting trees in her pasture is part of Shellman’s experiment in developing her silvopasture system. The term refers to a type of agroforestry that mixes tree growth into grazing lands as a means of increasing biodiversity and animal habitat, sequestering carbon and reducing water consumption.

Magpie Acres had 33 cattle grazing the property last year – too many for her land, she said – that were owned by a business partner. Shellman and her daughter recognize the value that cattle add to her land, and the value that trees can add to their grazing.

The shade trees reduce evaporation of water, and although they are spaced far enough apart for grass to grow, the trees still provide critical shade for grazing cattle.

Cattle obtain water by drinking and from the forage they eat, and their demand for it increases dramatically when temperatures surpass 77 degrees, according to the Forest Service’s National Agroforestry Center. The animals need about twice as much water in 90-degree heat as they demand in 50-degree temperatures.

The project, funded in part by the LOR Foundation with support from La Plata Open Space Conservancy, is ultimately about reducing water consumption in agriculture.

Although Shellman has good water rights, she recognizes the need to reduce her consumption. The benefit is not hers, at least right now, but for those farther along the basin to whom her unused water trickles down.

“If we each cut back a little, it has a mammoth effect,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Shellman and her daughter have no illusions about the scale of their impact. Reducing the consumption of 15 cow-calf pairs is unlikely to change much in the face of the historic Colorado River drought.

“We can show an example of alternative pasture grazing, alternative ranching – a more sustainable way to ranch, something that doesn’t depend on chemicals or fertilizer,” Shellman-Rickard said. “It’s just creating a more sustainable natural environment, which is a lot of what silvopasture ends up doing naturally.”

Marikay Shellman stands near one of the irrigation ditches that runs through her property, Magpie Acres. She has owned the property for 47 years. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

It is for this reason that the LOR foundation was interested in Shellman’s project. Jay Bouchard, the foundation’s spokesman, said the project is funded through a program called the Field Work initiative, which makes investments in projects like Shellman’s across the West.

“Magpie Acres has the opportunity to be a beacon of light for other ranchers and farmers in the community as they endeavor to continue their own businesses in a time of unpredictable weather and continued drought conditions,” Bouchard said in an email to The Durango Herald.

For now, the family is taking a break from cattle. They hope to have a small herd back in two years once the new trees have had an opportunity to establish themselves. In the meantime, Shellman will replant her pastures with native grass seeds to restore areas that continue to suffer the impact of last year’s herd.

As Bouchard pointed out, the project is an investment in research, as ranchers and farmers are forced to adapt to a changing climate.

Shellman-Rickard said the same.

“It’s a multilevel, multifaceted regenerative ranch experiment,” she said.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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