INTEGRATED CROP & LIVESTOCK SYSTEMS
The integration of animals into cropland is a practice that has existed for millennia, yet is not widely practiced in California and the United States. In order for agriculture to continue to provide feed and fiber, the adaptation of farming systems that are diversified and integrated will become increasingly important. Integrating animals into vegetable, grain, orchard and vineyard crops has a wide range of benefits for the farm and ecosystem. Depending on management considerations and desired benefits, there are a number of ways that animals and crops can be combined. Some examples include grazing livestock on crop residue, cover crops, or weeds, applying manure produced on-farm, or feeding crops grown on-farm to livestock. In California, there is increasing interest in the integration of sheep into vineyards.By combining animals and crops, external inputs can be reduced, helping to move production towards a closed-loop system. Cooperation between livestock managers like contract livestock grazers and tree, field, or row crop growers can be a useful way to integrate these types of farming and benefit both growers and ranchers.
Many benefits can be obtained when the integration of animals and cropland is well managed, such as higher on-farm diversity and resilience, improved soil health, and even improved sequestration of carbon into the soil.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
It was once commonplace in the United States to find mixed farms with both crops and livestock (9). In the last century, and especially since WWII, there has been a considerable decline in the combination of crops and animals due to market pressures toward specialization and industrialization (12), which has led to a hard separation between crop and animal production. However, there seems to be a trend in diversified farms adopting practices that mix these two elements of agriculture, and research into these types of farms has increased in recent years. There are a number of benefits to both the farm and the environment that are seen in mixed animal-crop operations.
Farmers may benefit from integrating livestock into crops because it lends to a higher level of diversification. As a strategy in risk reduction, diversification of income streams through crop-livestock systems can provide a buffer against market and climate fluctuations (11), (2), thereby increasing farm resilience. Integrating animals and crops can be an economically viable model as well. Increased yields and profit have been observed in integrated systems (6),(5),(3). Significant decreases in insect pests and corresponding yield increases have also been observed, for example with chickens in apple orchards (3).
By cycling nutrients between animals and crops, particularly nitrogen and carbon, nutrients are better kept on-farm and the addition of inputs like synthetic fertilizers and feed can be reduced (2). As animals browse or graze cropland, they recycle plant material and their manure is incorporated as an amendment that can improve soil tilth, fertility, and the soil’s potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere (10). Specific soil health indicators that correspond to an increased potential for carbon capturing are shown to be higher in mixed animal-crop systems (1). When vegetation is grazed rather than mowed, it can reduce soil compaction that heavy machinery would otherwise cause, meanwhile decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from diesel exhaust (8)(5).
Grazers and browsers can provide an efficient means of weed control as well. By grazing cover crops, weeds, or residues, the number of passes required to mow or spray with machinery can be reduced. Cover crops planted following a cash crop or between tree rows can provide high quality feed while enriching the soil and boosting soil biology. When seeded cover crops are grazed, a synergy between benefits of cover crops (link to cover crop page), manure additions, and mowing can be achieved (Grazing Cover Crops: A How-To Guide). Additionally, livestock can be an efficient way to mow or terminate cover crops.
In addition to aiding in weed control in cropland, livestock can effectively manage vegetation to reduce the risk of damage from wildfires (4). Local farmers have turned to goats, sheep, and cattle to reduce the on-farm fuel load and reduce the risk of wildfire damage to their farms (Audubon Canyon Ranch). Further research is underway to better understand how to best manage livestock for wildfire risk reduction.
A common concern among growers considering putting livestock on their fields is soil compaction; however, this is less of a concern in California and Western states if livestock is grazed on soil that isn’t too wet, (12) and when combined with rotational grazing at an appropriate stocking density.
CAFF’s WORK IN INTEGRATED CROP LIVESTOCK SYSTEMS
The Climate Smart Farming team is collaborating with farmers, livestock managers, and researchers in Northern California to better understand how these systems are adapted to California’s diverse agroecosystems. As part of several projects with local RCD’s and UC Davis, we have looked at the unique benefits and barriers to adoption of integrating sheep into vineyards. We are also keeping abreast on research that is underway around food safety concerns, soil health, yield and livestock integration. Finally, we are currently doing a survey to better understand benefits, tradeoffs, and best practices around all types of crop-livestock integration, so that we can facilitate the transfer of information from experienced farmers and livestock managers to others considering adopting these practices as well as policy makers and the public.
We’re seeking farmer input, so if you have experience with combining crops and animals, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
RESOURCES: INTEGRATED CROP & LIVESTOCK SYSTEMS
As part of our work in Ecological Farming and more broadly as an organization, CAFF aims to share stories of California growers and ranchers and
Want to find out more about the benefits and tradeoffs of integrating sheep into orchard systems? Check out our newest case study on Sierra Orchards
An introductory bulletin covering benefits and considerations of livestock-crop integration, including further reading resources. From the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).
USDA NRCS East National Technology Support Center View this webinar to learn how the Small Angus Ranch in Burleigh County, North Dakota, is working toward
‘What Does the Research Say?’ References:
- Acosta-Martinez, V., Bell, C.W., Morris, B.E.L., Zak, J., Allen, V.G., 2010. Long-term soil microbial community and enzyme activity responses to an integrated cropping livestock system in a semi-arid region. Agric. Ecosyst. Environ. 137, 231–240.
- Asai, M., Moraine, M., Ryschawy, J., Wit, J.D., Hoshide, A.K., & Martin, G. (2018). Critical factors for crop-livestock integration beyond the farm level: A cross-analysis of worldwide case studies.
- Clark, Sean & Gage, Stuart. (1996). Effects of free-range chickens and geese on insect pests and weeds in an agroecosystem. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture. 11. 39 – 47.
- Davies, Kirk & Bates, Jonathan & Svejcar, Tony & S. Boyd, Chad. (2010). Effects of Long-Term Livestock Grazing on Fuel Characteristics in Rangelands: An Example From the Sagebrush Steppe. Rangeland Ecology & Management. 63. 662-669.
- Garrett, Rachael & Niles, Meredith & Gil, J.D.B. & Gaudin, A & Chaplin-Kramer, Rebecca & Assmann, A,… Valentim, Judson. (2017). Social and ecological analysis of commercial integrated crop livestock systems: Current knowledge and remaining uncertainty. Agricultural Systems. 155. 136-146.
- Hoshide, A., Dalton, T., & Stewart, S. (2006). Profitability of coupled potato and dairy farms in Maine. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 21(4), 261-272.