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Dec 7, 2017

Crop-livestock reintegration

6 comments

 

Recently, I drove through the country’s vast middle with my brother. As we passed from Northeast to Midwest to Great Plains, I had the opportunity to look at a lot of farmland and think about what the patterns meant. One clear takeaway: plants and animals are more segregated on the landscape now than I can ever remember. Small and mid-sized crop-livestock operations have largely been replaced by great expanses of grain monocultures. Driving through the evening from Nebraska towards Denver on I-76, we encountered the missing animals, mostly by nose since it was too dark to see. Each time, it would begin with a slight tang in the air that quickly grew harsh, followed by three miles of an unbearable stench of ammonia, cadaverine, putrescine and the other awful volatile organic compounds that gas-off from industrial feedlots ( a ‘long smell’, my son called this long ago as a toddler). This happened six times over the space of 100 miles, leaving our breathing ragged and labored. It occurred to me that as unpleasant as it was for us to breathe that air, still rank miles from the feedlot, it is immeasurably worse for the animals living mired in their waste, gasping in the miasma. At a recent IDEA Farm Network meeting, I shared this experience with an integrated crop-livestock producer who responded, ‘Life on a feedlot is a race to finish the animal before it dies from the conditions…’ The dislocation of crop and livestock production isn’t good for the animals, isn’t good for the land and isn’t good for farmers (see https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0047149 for experimental evidence on the economic, production and environmental benefits of crop-livestock integration in a diversified production system). So, why is this system so embedded in our food economy? What are the structural obstacles to reuniting crop and livestock production? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and examples in your replies.

Dec 7, 2017

Adam,

 

In my opinion, the current situation is primarily caused by economics. During my time in central Nebraska, one thing that struck me was the fact that many operations ran cattle and farmed cropland. The two operations were mutually beneficial: cows ran on corn stalks during the fall and early winter to glean grain and cycle residue, which in turn took pressure off of the pastures and allowed for higher stocking rates during the prime growing season. Part of the reason was the geography (not everything could be farmed, there was a lot of rough land). Most of these operations produced conventional row crops and sold weaned calves every year into the commodity market. The finishing phase was removed from their operation. The commodity cattle market often applied large discounts to finished cattle when sold through an auction barn.

 

At the end of the day...the consumer has historically chosen low cost and easily accessible products. The least cost beef producers have achieved a massive economy of scale and have tapped into a feed stuff that is very low cost: Ethanol byproducts. Historically, there has also been a market for what is called "grinding hay" in these areas, which was hay of lower quality destined for feedlots. Much of this has been replaced with baled corn stalks from high yielding corn on irrigated ground.

 

Cattle feeders are now concentrated in areas where cow/calf producers and ethanol facilities overlap. I would contend that a removal of the Renewable Fuel standard would be a massive blow to large cattle feeders. While this would do little to change the economy of scale, it would increase the cost of feeding cattle in large feedlots and return some advantage to the smaller farmer/feeder. It would also slow the demand for baled corn stalks and lower the water demand on irrigated land by moving towards less water hungry crops.

 

 

 

Dec 10, 2017

I would like to recommend an eloquent discussion of this topic by a broad thinking soil scientist named Henry Janzen - "What place for livestock on a re-greening earth?"

 

the article can be accessed through the following link: http://www.redgatro.org.mx/assets/rn8.pdf

 

here is a quick taste from the abstract:

 

"Thus livestock can be both stressors and benefactors to land and the aim of researchers should be to shift the net effect from stress to beneficence. To advance this goal, I offer seven questions, seen through the lenses of ‘systems’, ‘place’, ‘time’ and ‘community’, mostly to foster discourse. How do we better study whole systems? How do we better tune the systems to local land? How can we know long term consequences? How do we measure progress? How do we choose among trade-offs? How do we engage society? What will(or should) our successors’ livestock systems look like?"

 

Joel

WIU Agriculture

 

Dec 11, 2017

I would agree with what Joel is talking about. I've personally seen where poorly managed livestock herds terrorized fields and pastures where they were grazing. I've also seen where proper resting periods allow for productive growth between livestock and pastures. I'm cautious to jump into cattle because I'm afraid of what can happen if cattle are grazing land during wet periods when I'm trying to farm row crops without tillage. If anyone has a good way to manage grazing cattle during the spring thaw, I'd like to learn more.

Dec 11, 2017

Will,

 

One technique that has worked for me in the past is to leave some winter stockpile forage for use during spring green up. Having more plant material underfoot, short grazing periods, the use of a back fence and paying close attention to the soil and weather conditions can really help. With that being said, it's hard to manage for everything.

 

Alternatively, the use of a standoff area, dry lot or sacrifice feeding area is a commonly used technique. These can be very useful during wet periods, or if the soil freezes at night but thaws by mid day. The cattle can be let out to graze until you suspect the soil is thawing, then lured back into the sacrifice/standoff area with fresh hay or baleage. This form of limit grazing is commonly used in pastured dairy and can help limit hoof activity while not reducing pasture DM intake. The cows learn to graze more aggressively for a short period of time. I would suggest allocating only enough for 1-2 days to prevent forage soiling and excessive hoof activity, and to make it easy to lure the cows back with feed.

Jul 21, 2018

I just moved to IL and have only been reading and watching to learn about regenerative ag. Would Gabe Brown's model help some people? He does cropping and at least cattle, pastured poultry, pigs and sheep. His area is far drier (bismark ND) but Russell Hedrick of NC is using a similar methods in a much wetter climate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RARFGkX3HBI

 

When soil health tenants are observed and large livestock intensively rotationally grazed (moved everyday or more when very wet), fields shouldn't suffer from the impact.

Jul 21, 2018

Yes, Gabe Brown has a very interesting system. The important point here is not to look at replicating models as a whole but rather use various techniques like tools in a toolbox. Everyone has different production situations, different weather patterns, and the economics of one operation to the next may vary significantly. I have worked with a few people who attempted to adopt a model as a whole, and rarely does it work out. The model must be adapted to each individual scenario, but the basic principles remain the same.

 

Well managed, integrated livestock and cropping systems can be very productive. The challenge in much of Illinois comes from warm winters and out-wintering cattle on soft ground. If the ground is frozen there is little issue, and if the land is well drained there is less of an issue. This is why frequent moves, a barn, or a stand-off area can be important if you are winter grazing stockpiled forage.

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