Using livestock could reduce machinery costs

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may help farmers grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests, and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State and North Dakota State universities.

Using livestock could reduce machinery costs

 

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may help farmers grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests, and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State and North Dakota State universities.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA research, education and Extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences, who is part of the research team.

Key Points

• Sheep may be better than machines for some farm jobs.

• Montana State study shows sheep do well managing fallow and cover crops.

• North Dakota State also participated in the study.

Breaking the tillage cycle

Miller says in a typical organic farming system, tillage is used to terminate cover crops and get rid of unwanted weeds. But frequent mechanical tilling can disrupt soil structure and reduce organic matter, ultimately harming the success and growth of future crops and costing farmers money.

“There’s one major downfall in organic farming — and that’s soil erosion, which is related directly to tillage,” Miller says. “This project targets that vulnerability. We’ve designed a system that lets us engage grazing to reduce tillage by more than half.”

Instead of using traditional tilling machinery, Miller says the project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms.

Early project results suggested that grazing sheep saved money on tilling costs. The simulated farming operation also made money when the lambs were sold for processing after grazing cover crops. In providing alternative practices to organic and non-organic ranch and farming operations, the project also makes a case for a closer relationship between livestock and crop producers, says Patrick Hatfield, MSU animal and range sciences professor who is part of the research team.

“Using sheep as the central tool in an integrated system like this is unique because it looks at agro-ecosystem management from a holistic perspective,” Hatfield says. The study is “bridging farm systems and ranch systems in an enterprise-level manner, and finding very real economic and agronomic benefits.”

The project evaluates an organic farming operation, largely because the organic market is one of the fastest-growing markets in the food industry. According to Anton Bekkerman, assistant professor at MSU’s Department of Agricultural Economics, U.S. consumers spend about $30 billion on organic foods each year.

Montana big on organic

“Montana is the third-largest producer of organic crops and livestock in the United States, and this study is looking at how organic food can be produced and brought to market in an efficient and cost-effective way,” Bekkerman says. “The study also provided us with alternative ideas of how to manage cropping systems, with the potential for sustainability and potential entrepreneurship.”

The multidisciplinary project team involves faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from varied fields that include agronomy, weed ecology, animal and range sciences, community development, political science, entomology, soil science, and agricultural economics.

“We are approaching this perspective not from a sole discipline; we are looking at a system-level approach,” says Fabian Menalled, MSU Extension weed ecologist. “Cropping systems can get complex in terms of interactions of plants with soil organisms, crops and crop pests, and farmers need to find a balance between economic return, productivity and sustainability. This study speaks to every one of those factors.”

The project will continue to include several farms affiliated with MSU’s College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, including the Fort Ellis Experiment Station west of Bozeman, a historic U.S. Cavalry fort turned into a livestock teaching and research farm.

MSU is the largest land-grant university in Montana.

Thanks to Montana State University News for this article.

This article published in the June, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

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