Mixing livestock and farming
July 21, 2014
I remember as a kid in eastern Montana in the 60's that most folks turned their cattle or sheep into their wheat stubble or other crop residue in the fall, thus mixing their livestock and farming enterprises. It seems that since then we have become more specialized as either farmers or ranchers and moved to keeping the farming and ranching enterprises separate. My question is, have we lost some efficiencies and opportunities that could be regained by integrating the crop and livestock enterprises back together?
Last week, I was at the annual conference of the Western Section of the American Society of Animal Science. Because the western U.S. is the region of the country dominated by rangelands, this is the meeting that animal scientists from all over the country, not just those in the western states, report their latest research findings about forage-based livestock production. Pat Hatfield, a noted sheep nutritionist at Montana State University, was recipient of the Distinguished Service Award, and as such, gave a presentation on a topic of his choice relative to animal agriculture in the West. He chose to speak about the value of integrating sheep grazing into cropping systems. An important part of his research contribution while at Montana State University has been about the value of sheep grazing integrated into farming enterprises in Montana. His research has shown value at reducing pest damage to wheat crops because sheep grazing reduces damage caused by the wheat stem sawfly, as well as the value that can be gained from using sheep to graze out cover crops rather than using tillage or herbicide to terminate a cover crop before planting the next cash crop. Not only have these practices eliminated the cost of chemicals and fuel for the farming enterprise, they add a lot of easy nutrition and production for the sheep enterprise. In other words, it's a win-win for both crops and livestock.
As a beef cattle nutritionist, I ask if we are missing the boat in a similar fashion by not doing a better job of integrating beef cattle production into cropping systems? Terry Klopfenstein, a recently retired and highly respected beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, has told me that only 15 percent of the corn stalks in Nebraska are grazed in the fall and winter after corn harvest. I expect that is true in the surrounding states as well and suggest this is a tremendous under-utilized resource for livestock nutrition. As we move further north, the same is likely true for wheat stubble. The other potential opportunity in modern cropping systems is to integrate livestock grazing into cover crop utilization. Research efforts and anecdotal evidence suggest that the value of cover crops for farmland should not be reduced by well managed livestock grazing.
Not only are crop residues and cover crops great sources of inexpensive nutrition for grazing livestock, but grazing utilization should have tremendous conservation value as well. Moving cattle off rangeland for the periods when they are on these farmed forages provides rest periods for the rangelands that are beneficial, even during winter when corn stalk grazing may occur. Trampling by livestock, as long as its not excessive, may also benefit the cropland by helping to incorporate the ungrazed portion of the crop residue or cover crop into the soil to improve the incorporation of organic matter into the soil.
If livestock grazing on farmland can be beneficial to soil health on the farmland, it may turn around and be beneficial to the associated rangelands and livestock as well. For example, a growing concern throughout the U.S. is nutrient runoff from farmland into surface and groundwater, particularly with nitrogen and phosphate. What had been intended as crop nutrients become pollutants in water. Do we have similar but different problems with other mineral nutrients in the Northern High Plains? Many of our soils are high in mineral salts that can become available at toxic levels in livestock water, with sulfates being a prime example. There is anecdotal evidence that farming practices, i.e. tillage, may release these nutrients and allow them to move into ground and surface water, leading to toxic levels in livestock drinking water. Improving the economic viability of cover crops by taking advantage of their grazing value may increase cover crop use, and this may in turn improve soil health and stability of mineral salts in the soil.
There are a lot of reasons to reconsider specialization in only farming or ranching and move to reintegration of livestock into cropping systems. Ag enterprise diversification may lead to improved economic stability and sustainability in today's more volatile ag markets. It may provide opportunities for young, beginning producers to add income streams to existing farms and ranches that will allow them to join the family ag operation. The bottom line is that well-planned mixed livestock-cropping systems likely provide more opportunities than challenges.