Match made in heaven: livestock + crops

Progress report for LNC21-453

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $247,740.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Erin Meier
Green Lands Blue Waters/MISA/UM
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Project Information


Bringing well-managed pastures, other perennial forages, manure nutrients, and legume sources of nitrogen back to annually cropped land is essential to restoring the ecological function of agricultural land and addressing a suite of environmental issues in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed. Accomplishing this far-reaching goal requires a foundation of trust-based relationships among multiple stakeholders, built on a shared understanding of the problems and possible solutions.

This project seeks to foster re-integration of livestock and grain production systems in the North Central Region by engaging mainstream and underserved farmer organizations with regenerative agriculture organizations in collaborative work:

  • conducting an interactive survey of crop and livestock farmers in six states (IA, IL, IN, MN, MO, and WI) to gain an understanding of producer practices, challenges, and goals 
  • gathering and curating regional resources on crop and livestock integration; building integrated farm financial analysis tools and case studies
  • widely disseminating resources collected or developed through the project
  • beginning development of regional and state-specific educational programming based on the needs and interests identified in the survey.

The survey will be distributed to at least 10,000 farmers through organizations the farmers trust. Survey results from at least 3,000 farmers will generate information on producer practices, attitudes, and goals. The survey will give partner organizations a better understanding of the concerns of row crop farmers wary of adding livestock to their enterprise and will help identify ways to overcome systemic challenges to livestock integration in today’s agriculture. This knowledge, coupled with collective experience of collaborators, will guide development of educational programming and other activities aimed at promoting environmental, economic, and social benefits of integrated livestock and crop systems in the North Central Region.

Coordinated by the Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group (MPFWG) of Green Lands Blue Waters, project partners include farmers, farmer organizations, universities and state and federal agencies in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin. As part of this project, we have been forging ties with new partners, including mainstream livestock and grain producer organizations. We have been reaching out as well to farming organizations that serve veterans, women, and people of color, to build a coalition of farmer-led partners to transition NCR agriculture toward a system that generates economic, social, and environmental rewards for farmers and communities.

Project Objectives:
  • MPFWG and partners have expanded collaboration, inviting mainstream and underserved crop and livestock farmer organizations and farmers to participate in survey and resource development.


  • Through a comprehensive survey and in-depth case studies, partners will gain understanding of farmers’ current livestock and grain production practices, financial conditions, needs, and goals.


  • MPFWG collaborators and new partners will build a crop and livestock integration resource library and craft educational programming informed by survey results.


  • Our longer-term goal is that farmers and farm educators across the Midwest will pursue strategies to integrate livestock and crop production on farms, resulting in increased continuous living cover.

Intensive annual grain production is a leading cause of non-point pollution of surface and groundwater, hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, and topsoil losses in the U.S. Corn Belt (Spratt et al 2021, Thaler et al 2021). The most effective means of substantially addressing water quality issues, providing high quality wildlife and pollinator habitat, and ensuring long-term carbon sequestration in agricultural soils, is through increasing acreage of perennial forages and well-managed pasture: crops that cannot be eaten by humans but are integral to livestock production (Crews et al. 2018).

Well-managed perennial forages deliver superior ecosystem services (Franzluebbers et al 2012, Spratt et al 2021) and contribute significantly to cropping system stability and resilience (Boody and Meier 2020, Sanford et al 2020) as well as more predictable and stable income for farmers (Chavas et al 2009). While these benefits have been known for decades, agriculture in the North Central Region has continued on a trajectory toward increased specialization, pushed by farm policy, technology changes, labor availability, and economies of scale (Sulc and Franzluebbers 2013, Garrett et al 2017). In states like Illinois, where 80% of the cropland is in a corn-soybean rotation, there is no way to meet clean water and soil health goals without a significant increase in perennial crops on the landscape (Willhite et al (no date)), which argues strongly for reintegration of crop and livestock systems and increased urgency to help farmers adopt alternatives to corn-soybean rotations (Prokopy et al., 2020.)

Numerous researchers have promoted diversified crop and livestock systems and documented the benefits of such systems (Sulc and Tracy 2007, Olmstead and Brummer 2008). Mainstream agriculture groups are increasingly interested in environmental issues such as water quality and carbon sequestration. There are also increasing concerns among these mainstream groups about farm resilience in the face of climate changes and global economic changes. This is a good time for the sustainable agriculture community to reach out and engage these groups. The current interest in cover crops among both livestock and grain farmers presents an opportunity to foster reintroduction of livestock grazing and manure nutrients to crop ground. NCR SARE has supported significant work in this area, with more than a dozen recent projects related to grazing cover crops. Using cover crops as forages increases economic returns of cover crops, decreasing the risk of experimentation for new cover croppers (Plastina et al. 2018, SARE report).

Discussions among grazing educators over the past decade have repeatedly affirmed that the first step toward true integration of livestock and crops, and increase in opportunities to increase perennial forage acreage, is to just get livestock present on the land. Increasing perennial forage acreage is a long-term goal of this and related projects, but we recognize that grazing of cover crops and crop residues can be key entry points to presence of livestock on the land. Understanding farmer attitudes, actions, and perceived barriers to these forms of livestock reintroduction will help educators and promoters of these practices design more effective outreach and education tools.

Four SARE-funded projects about livestock integration with cropping systems other than forages were conducted in the years 2013 to 2015, and all of
these were Farmer-Rancher grants. That hints at interest among farmers in crop and livestock integration, but specific educational support for integration has been lagging. We envision this project accelerating the crop and livestock integration conversation among farm advisors and educators who work with large-scale cash grain crops in the North Central Region, and resulting in an uptick in educational offerings on the topic throughout the region.

This project will build on previous work by partners, including a Conservation Innovation Grant project on grazing cover crops conducted by the Pasture Project, Land Stewardship Project, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and the Sustainable Farming Association (Williams and King 2018). This project will complement the Grassland 2.0 project funded by a USDA-SAS CAP grant, which takes a similar peer to peer learning approach to perennial forage adoption. While several of our partners (Practical Farmers of Iowa, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, state-level NRCS, University Extension) do programming in both crop and livestock systems, this project seeks to broaden our coalition of farmer groups and increase our educational capacity on crop and livestock integration across the region. 

• Boody and Meier 2020. Farming with Well-Managed Grazing & Continuous Living Cover Enhances Soil Health & Addresses Climate Change
• Chasdon et al. 2017. A Field Guide to Ripple Effects Mapping. Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute, University of Minnesota (
• Chavas JP et al 2009. Organic and Conventional Production Systems in the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial: II. Economic and Risk Analysis 1993–2006. Agronomy Journal, 101, 288–295.
• Crews et al 2018. Is the future of agriculture perennial? Imperatives and opportunities to reinvent agriculture by shifting from annual monocultures to perennial polycultures. Glob. Sustain. 1.
• Franzluebbers et al 2012. Well-managed grazing systems: A forgotten hero of conservation. J. Soil and Water Conservation 67: 100A-104A.
• Garrett et al 2017. Social and ecological analysis of commercial integrated crop livestock systems: Current knowledge and remaining uncertainty. Agricultural Systems 155: 136-146.
• Olmstead and Brummer 2008. Benefits and barriers to perennial forage crops in Iowa corn and soybean rotations. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 23(2): 97-107.
• Plastina, A., Liu, F., Miguez, F., & Carlson, S. (2020). Cover crops use in Midwestern US agriculture: perceived benefits and net returns. Renewable
Agriculture and Food Systems, 35(1), 38-48
• Prokopy et al. 2020. The urgency of transforming the Midwestern U.S. landscape into more than corn and soybean. Agriculture and Human Values 37: 537-539.
• Spratt et al 2021. Accelerating regenerative grazing to tackle farm, environmental, and societal challenges in the upper Midwest. J. Soil and Water
Conservation 76: 15A-23A.
• Sanford et al 2021. Perenniality and diversity drive output stability and resilience in a 26-year cropping systems experiment. Field Crops Research 263. (
• Sulc and Tracy 2007. Integrated Crop–Livestock Systems in the U.S. Corn Belt. Agron. J. 99:335–345.
• Sulc and Franzluebbers 2014. Exploring integrated crop–livestock systems in different ecoregions of the United States. European Journal of Agronomy 57:21-30.
• Taylor-Powell et al 1998. Evaluating Collaboratives: Reaching the Potential. UW Extension Learning Store ( ).
• Thaler et al 2021 The extent of soil loss across the US Corn Belt. PNAS February 23, 2021 118 (8) (
• Wallace Center 2019. Current state and potential future for livestock grazing and grass-fed/finished markets in Illinois: A qualitative study of stakeholder perspectives (
• Willhite et al (no date). Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
• Williams and King 2018. Benefits of Planting and Grazing Diverse Cover Crops.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Andrew Bernhardt - Technical Advisor
  • Denise Schwab - Technical Advisor
  • Jeff Duchene - Technical Advisor
  • Allison Vanderwal - Technical Advisor
  • Jordan Thomas - Technical Advisor
  • Samuel Porter - Technical Advisor
  • Margaret Chamas - Technical Advisor
  • James Paulson



A significant percentage, we estimate between 25% and 40%, of farmers who currently raise only crops have curiosity about and potential interest in adding a livestock component to their farming operation, but are wary due to a variety of challenges. Understanding the level of potential interest, the top concerns of crop farmers, and the experiences of farmers who already integrate crops and livestock, will help farm educators develop effective programs and resources to encourage more crop and livestock integration.

Materials and methods:

Project Timeline

Year 1: Partnership development, develop first infographic product based on advisory group input, review literature and collect resources, develop survey instrument(s), develop survey promotional materials, develop farmer interview protocols for case studies.

Year 2: Deploy survey, begin case study development, begin planning educational programming, begin survey summarization, begin resource library development with existing resources.

Year 3: Complete case studies, complete survey summary; conduct case study field days and other workshops, webinars, and conference sessions; complete resource library development with newly generated resources; recommend educational approaches and resources to encourage crop and livestock integration.

Farmer and farm organization involvement

The project's working advisory group currently includes representatives of farmer organizations, agencies and universities in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Eleven members are commercial-scale crop and livestock farmers who are paid a $600/year stipend to participate as advisors; and there is at least one farmer-advisor from each of the six states. We have established an active advisory team that includes the eleven farmers as well as participation by 54 individuals from 44 entities; including those that represent crop and livestock farmers and underserved farmers. Thirty of those entities have participated in three or more advisory group meetings or focus groups. Advisory group members helped create the livestock and crop integration infographic, and helped create and test the survey instrument. We will continue to rely on the advisory group to help interpret results of the survey and the farmer case studies, develop a second infographic, curate a library of crop and livestock integration resources, and guide consideration of next steps for educational programming. 

Coalition Building. One goal of this project is to engage a wide spectrum of organizations, institutions, and agencies in collective outreach to and learning from their membership. The project core team and project partners worked together to engage additional partners in each state. Organizations participating in the advisory group through 10/31/22 are listed in the attachment:  MMIH_advisory_participation

The livestock and large scale row crop farming sectors are historically dominated by white and mostly male farmers. Some of the barriers to entry for BIPOC farmers are well-known and systemic, and unlikely to be effectively addressed by this project. Working with Andrew Bernhardt, WI Department of Agriculture Specialist for underserved farmers, we have begun building relationships with organizations that serve these audiences and are working on interviews, conducted by Andrew Bernhardt, with BIPOC-led organizations that serve farmers. We hope to gain organization-level perspectives on these barriers and other topics such as culturally-based attitudes toward/relationships with the land and with livestock.

Project partners have used coalition-building best practices (Chasdon et al 2017, Taylor-Powell et al 1998) to build strong relationships with new partners as well as document the results of our efforts. Each participating organization has been offered a $100 honorarium per meeting up to a total of $1,400 for an anticipated advisory team schedule of 6 meetings in Year 1, 4 meetings in Year 2, and 4 meetings in Year 3.

Infographic Development. The first project for the advisory group, begun during the first official advisory group meeting in February 2022, was development of an infographic about crop and livestock integration. This shared work was done very intentionally to give advisory group members a specific reason to attend group meetings and a vehicle to communicate with each other about their priorities. This was a very successful process in collaboration with the design firm Background Stories. The entire infographic development process took about seven weeks, garnered very active involvement from many advisory group members, and resulted in a product that had a great deal of advisory group buy-in. 

Case Studies. While the infographic development was underway in year one, a smaller team of experts in farm-level crop and livestock integration and farm financial management began working to develop a set of farmer interview protocols that would capture key economic indicators for integrated crop and livestock systems. Experts participating in this protocol development include Denise Schwab (IA State University), Allison VanDerWal (Minnesota Cattlemen’s Association), Jordan Thomas (University of Missouri), Jeff Duchene (USDA-NRCS),  Sam Porter (USDA-NRCS), Margaret Chamas (Practical Farmers of Iowa), and Jim Paulson (grazing consultant.) The case study team is working to identify six farmers, one per state, who have successfully integrated livestock and annual rowcrop systems; with the goal of documenting a range of integration strategies across the six state region. The interview protocol document was completed in mid-2022 and Jim Paulson began conducting farmer interviews. Each farmer will receive a $600 honorarium for their participation. The small group of crop and livestock integration experts will then reconvene to  investigate and summarize economic themes among these successfully integrated farms. Fact sheets and powerpoint presentations will be developed, similar to those we created for a similar 2017 project on dairy grazing ( Materials will be shared in the library of crop and livestock integration resources.

Survey development and deployment. 

Project leads Meier, Paine, and Jewett worked with the 0.3 FTE outreach coordinator, Amy Fenn, to facilitate survey design discussions between the University of Wisconsin Survey Center and the project advisory group, including farmer advisors. The core team met with a variety of experts recommended by advisory group members to gain insight on farmer sociology, prior survey work on related topics, and appropriate question wording. With insights gained from collected resources the team created a number of draft iterations of the survey that were tested and revised based on advisory group feedback. As of 10/31/22 the survey was in its 8th iteration and the project coordinator was beginning work on a survey distribution toolkit to assist advisory group members and others in disseminating the survey widely to livestock and grain farmers in all six states included in this project: IA, IN, IL, MO, MN, and WI.

Final formatting of the survey will be conducted by the UW Survey Center. The survey will be structured primarily for online deployment using the University of Wisconsin’s Qualtrics software, but will also be formatted and made available to partner organizations to send out in paper form. The Survey Center will advise on deployment strategies and outreach to maximize the response rate. Each project partner will conduct outreach and distribution of the survey among their members and audiences. Therefore it will not be sent to a random sample of farmers, but rather a sample drawn from partner organizations’ membership and other sources. Survey responses will be compared to existing USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data and other representative samples.

The survey has been designed to gather basic information from all respondents and allow specific, in-depth questions for different sub-groups of farmers (such as farmers who already have integrated crop and livestock systems, and underserved farmers). Input from project partners and farmer advisors guided specific question development, but examples of themes in the survey include the following: Livestock farmers who also raise crops (including forage and pasture) are asked about their grazing management, their interest in/attitudes toward partnering with crop farmers to graze cover crops, crop aftermath or rent land for pasture, and their experiences of benefits and challenges associated with crop and livestock integration. Crop-only farmers are asked about their interest in/attitudes toward incorporating livestock enterprises into their operations, allowing livestock farmers to graze cover crops or crop aftermath, and perceptions of barriers to crop and livestock integration. Livestock-only farmers also have a pathway through the survey to answer questions about the size and nature of their operations and their experiences in grazing their livestock. All farmer groups are asked about markets and processing availability, and their use of programs related to adoption of grazing or other soil health practices. Demographic questions are included for all farmer types.

The process of working together on infographic and survey development has created a framework for new and existing partners to share information, gain an understanding and appreciation of each other’s perspectives, and build relationships of trust and shared goals. These partners are already stepping up to help secure support and publicity for the infographic and the survey, and to encourage participation of their members and others. Engaging a broad spectrum of farmer organizations in this project early on with the shared work of infographic and survey development is building a foundation for far-reaching, effective programming to be developed later in the project and beyond.

Survey Results Dissemination

The survey results will be summarized at state and regional levels. Results will be shared with participating organizations, and disseminated to farmers and farm educators through those organizations’ networks as well as to the general public. Summarization of the survey results will yield recommendations on research gaps, educational programming needs and policy strategies. Because there is little current information available on farmer practices and attitudes specifically related to integration of crops and livestock, we expect the survey to generate new ideas and topics for educational programming, some of which may be implemented in the final year of the project and some of which we anticipate being moved forward by others after the completion of this project.

Building a collection of resources on livestock and crop integration. The project core team will work with the advisory group to conduct a literature review and collect recommendations for key resources. The team will gather resources into a virtual library of livestock and crop integration materials, housing it on existing websites of partner organizations.. Current members of our team have already created resources and platforms of value to the project, such as the Midwest Grazing Exchange website (mentioned above) and the Pasture Project’s REGAIN network for collaboration among regenerative agriculture practitioners ( Materials such as reports, infographics, PowerPoints, and fact sheets  developed through this project will be added to the online collection.

Educational programming.  

This project is, by nature, multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional, engaging annual cropping system and livestock system experts, across a range of institutions and organizations. We will continue to work with our advisory committee that includes crop and livestock farmers as well as  representatives from organizational and institutional partners on development of educational materials and activities featuring peer-to-peer learning opportunities that focus on livestock and crop reintegration and support broader regional sustainability goals. We anticipate many of the organizations involved will use the information generated from this project as a resource to develop educational materials targeted to their own audiences, beyond the end date of this project.   

Field Days. In year three, six of the case study farmers will host a field day in cooperation with MPFWG and in-state partner organizations to share their story and their practices. Host farmers will be offered a $600 honorarium in addition to $400 per field day to cover field day expenses such as rental of canopies and port-a-potties, snacks, transportation for accessibility, etc. Project team members and in-state partners will have access to a $600 travel allowance per field day to support their attendance. Presentations at these field days will include summary information across the case study farms and from the survey results.


Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Our approach is to engage as many farmers and agriculture-related organizations as possible and work with them to create attractive and accessible tools for conversations about crop and livestock integration that farmers will view as credible. We know that one-on-one conversations with farm advisors and farmer-to-farmer sharing are the most effective means of persuasion. Having farm advisors and farmers directly involved in crafting tools for the conversations will, we hope, result in thoughts that can’t be easily dismissed as unrealistic; thus paving the way for more uptake of crop and livestock integration practices by farmers.

Project Activities

Assemble & Engage Advisory Group
Livestock + Crop Infographic Development
Survey Instrument Development
Farmer Case Studies
BIPOC Organization Interviews
Survey Dissemination
Survey Analysis
Field Days

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
35 Published press articles, newsletters
13 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Other educational activities: Focus groups with advisory group members participating

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers participated
54 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

infographic press release



2022_08_01 midwest forage assn article



As part of this project, we want to raise general awareness and visibility of crop and livestock integration, beyond the circle of those directly involved as Advisory Group members or Case Study Team members. Our project coordinator, Amy Fenn, developed a MailChimp newsletter and starting list of 92 recipients, which grew to 101 recipients by 10/31/22. From February through October 2022 there were 15 newsletters sent out, with an average 51% open rate (example newsletters are attached.)

We worked at keeping the Advisory Group members engaged with the project as well as reaching out to more organizations to invite their participation. From February through October 22 we convened 4 whole-group advisory group meetings that included presentations, and gave stand-alone presentations to 7 organizations. Advisory Group engagement also included 4 focus groups for specific feedback on projects such as the infographic development and survey development. These were always educational discussions for the participants with sharing of information and perspectives, which was our intent, so we are counting them as educational activities.

The project generated a Livestock + Crops infographic that is intended for sharing and use as a fact sheet, with space for addition of local contact information. Twelve earned media articles promoting the infographic and the concept of crop and livestock integration were published by the following entities in May of 2022:
Izaak Walton League 
Grassland 2.0
Kerr Center for Sustainable Ag in Oklahoma
Midwest Farm Report
MN Soil Health Coalition
MN-Sustainable Farming Association
Morning Ag Clips
Nebraska Ag News
SARE West Virginia
Upper Mississippi River Initiative
Midwest Forage Association

The single Consultation listed refers to the interview of a farmer as a case study subject. Our interviewer was requesting information from the farmer, but the interview also provided information and several new ways of thinking about his operation to the farmer, so it was really a mutually educational experience. 

11/01/22 - 10/31/23 Update:

Amy Fenn's MailChimp list has expanded to 116 people. From 11/01/22 through 10/31/23 there were 9 MailChimp newsletters sent out, with an average 51% open rate. That is the same average open rate as the previous year, so we are maintaining the level of engagement. 

In the same time-frame we had 10 earned media items about the project in general, including magazine articles, newsletters, a podcast interview, and a radio interview: 

Progressive Forage article by Laura Paine, 11/09/22

Morning Ag Clips article, 01/19/23 

Marbleseed Organic Broadcaster Article, p. 14-16, 04/01/23 

MN Cattlemen’s Association article, p. 8, 4/13/23
2023-04 MNSCA magazine p 5 & 8.pdf

U of MN Extension Crop News Blog, 4/17/23

Successful Farming article by Laura Paine, 5/30/23 

Midwest Farm Report Radio Segment, 6/14/23 

U of MN Extension Moos Room Podcast, released 7/31/23

Learning Outcomes

Key areas taught:

    Project Outcomes

    Key practices changed:
      11 New working collaborations
      Success stories:

      We made an effort to bring both sustainable agriculture and mainstream, conventional crop and livestock organizations into the Advisory Group, and then provided opportunities for shared work in developing the infographic and the survey. We heard appreciation from the farmers and the representatives of organizations involved about their ability to participate and the focus on crop and livestock integration.

      Quote from a Minnesota educator: "I was skeptical of yet another survey, but you have proved me wrong. Invaluable, hard, dynamic conversations we’ve been able to have because of these calls. It's bringing together people who aren’t usually at the same table."

      Quote from a Wisconsin crop farmer: "I like to put my two cents’ in. Cover crops are a good idea."

      Quote from a Missouri farmer: "When you look at the last cattle report that came out, numbers are at record lows. Soil is in pitiful state; it needs cows rather than row crops. I hope this project makes a difference and brings in more young people."

      Quote from an Illinois educator: "We have a lot of interest in grazing and folks are looking for any opportunity and information. We have a lot of row crops. Covers and forages are underutilized and there’s a huge opportunity."

      Quote from an Indiana educator: "I'm seeing it from the crop production side. I would like to see us utilize livestock a lot more."


      Information Products

      Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.