Integration and diversification are principles for maximizing the use of limited agricultural resources and minimizing risks associated with a single enterprise. In recent times, an increasingly sophisticated agriculture has focused more on specialization. Considering the need to become more sustainable in long term land productivity and difficult economic times, it is appropriate to research alternatives to high input single enterprise farming.
This project evaluated the practical, environmental, and economical aspects of adding a ruminant livestock enterprise to crop farms using traditional vs. non-traditional crop management systems. Ruminant animals contribute to diversified, flexible and sustainable cropping systems in four significant ways.
First, ruminants are a marketing tool to allow a more diverse selection of crops for more sustainable rotations.
Second, ruminants can make use of crop products that have little or no cash value such as sprouted grain, excess crop residue, frozen corn or aftermath grazing.
Third, ruminants contribute to the cropping system by producing fecal material useful as a nitrogen source for crop production.
Finally, ruminants diversify the economic risk of single enterprise agriculture. Several other less significant advantages include decentralizing livestock production for pollution control, occupying family and hired labor throughout the year, and developing a more diverse local economy.
Some other benefits may be more spiritual such as caregiving to animals that respond to treatment and observing the miracle of new life at calving. However, there are some disadvantages including competition for labor during critical times for both crop and livestock production schedules, difficulty in keeping up with sophisticated production practices in both enterprises, and added capital needs. Beef cattle and sheep were studied under drylot conditions for two reasons. First, to control the diet for the study of imposed nutritional treatments impact on performance.
Second, animals in a lot can maximize the use of harvestable crop products from an intensively farmed land base. Lactating drylot beef cows and ewes fed high residue diets supplemented with legume hay and agricultural processing by-products or on farm grown protein sources produced satisfactory performance in growth and breeding. Two milk production levels were studied with highly different nutrient requirements. Higher amounts of crop residue were used in lower milking cow rations. Cows will consume a wide variety of feeds but diets need to be balanced to meet nutrient requirements using palatable combinations of ingredients.
Calves were successfully weaned at 4 months of age to permit higher residue lower cost diets for non lactating drylot cows. Creep feed needs to be offered prior to weaning with calves consuming a minimum of 2 pounds per head per day for successful adaptation to a feedlot diet. Wheat screenings were successfully used in diets for weaned calves to lower feed costs without reducing gains. Yeast enhanced performance of early weaned calves however a more complex probiotic supplement had no effect on feed intake, gain, health of calves weaned from drylot cows at the traditional time.
Two four year cropping systems included in this study are described as conventional (wheat-sunflower-barley-fallow system)or a low purchased input system (wheat with underseeded legume-legume hay-corn-soybean). Following carbon from harvested crop products through the ruminant animal and back to the field indicates that 40 to 50% is returned to the land. As much as 70 to 80% of the nitrogen removed and fed to animals was recovered but supplemental hay was fed. In general, more carbon and nitrogen was returned to the field as manure than expected.
Composted cattle manure at 6 tons per acre spread on alternate years produced an average of 40.7 bushels of wheat per acre compared to 36.6 for ammonium nitrate applied every year at an equivalent rate of 50 pounds N. Nitrogen costs averaged $.1433 per bushel of wheat for manure and $.1608 for anhydrous ammonia. Economic analysis suggests adding ruminants to a crops only farm can be profitable. An average farm used in the model supported 85 beef cows without adding pasture and returned an additional $24,310 with conventional tillage and $27,497 using conservation tillage. The same model farm would support 219 ewes and return $17,155. Coefficient of variation for returns to overhead dropped from .845 for crops only farms to .48 for integrated crop-livestock enterprises. Crops only farms in the Northern Plains states could profit from adding beef cows or sheep with little change in cropping systems if maximum use is made of all crop products. Optimum production with high levels of management help insure a profitable and sustainable crop-livestock integrated farm.
Objective 1: Determine the performance and adaptability of lactating beef cows, feeder cattle and ewes to alternative management practices and high residue diets produced with low-input crop production systems.
Objective 2: Quantify nitrogen and carbon movement for crops only and crop-livestock production systems.
Objective 3: Compare whole farm economic returns from conventional cropping systems, low input cropping systems and low input crop-livestock production systems.
Objective 1: Determine the performance and adaptability of lactating beef cows, feeder cattle and ewes to alternative management practices and high residue diets produced with low-input crop production systems. Summary Ruminant livestock can adapt to a wide variety of management conditions and feed ingredients given reasonable attention to their needs. An astute manager may be able to anticipate and compensate for many of the problems encountered with alternative feeds and production systems. Experience, technical knowledge of nutrition, and a good feel for animals and their needs are almost imperative when animals are managed close to the limit of their nutritional window such as those in this study. The most serious problems encountered in this project were:
(1) the unpalatable by-product from oats processed for Cherrios which cows would not eat and therefor decreased in milk production and condition;
(2) blowing dust from dry windy conditions in cooperator Ludwig’s drylot cows which resulted in dust pneumonia and eventual death of two calves. The following individual enterprise and activity reports are quite self explanatory. The experiences and results could be transferred to virtually anyplace cattle and crops are combined for efficient resource utilization.
Cropping system by-products for lactating drylot beef cows:
During a two year study, drylot beef cows were fed alternative crop products in two separate experiments. In experiment one, average milking beef cows were fed wheat screenings, sunflower meal and lupine beans as their protein source in addition to limited amounts of mixed legume hay and free choice cereal grain straw. In experiment two, above average milking cow were offered edible bean splits or alfalfa hay in addition to corn silage and free choice poor quality hay. Calves were offered equivalent amounts of creep feed in both experiments. Rebreeding was accomplished by natural service sires.
No statistical differences were detected in performance of the cows or calves between the treatments in either of the experiments. Feed costs varied depending to a great extent on the cost of the protein supplement. Salvage or low value feeds such as wheat screenings appear to be most economical, but prices need to be compared on a cost per pound of protein basis. Other feeds, such as lupines, may contribute nitrogen to the cropland which in turn would reduce purchased fertilizer requirements. Rebreeding success was satisfactory for both experiments.
Early weaned drylot beef calves:
Early weaned beef calves (n=48) were offered high energy diets (51 MCal/cwt) with and without yeast (Yea-Sacc 1026R). The March and April born crossbred steer and heifer calves were weaned July 21 at an average weight of 323.5 pounds. Calves receiving Yea-Sacc 1026R gained 2.375 pounds per day compared to 2.145 for control calves(P>.05) during the 55 d feeding period. Dry matter intake averaged 13.21 and 12.96 pounds per head per day for yeast and control calves with feed conversions of 5.56 and 6.04 pounds of dry matter per pound of gain.
Farmer Cooperator Joel Fischer family, Makoti, North Dakota:
We ran one group of cows on native pasture and another group were kept in drylot during the summer. The main reason was to be able to use up large amounts of extra feed and to substitute for unavailable pasture or pasture where the water source dried up. We fed drylot cows for two years and learned some lessons that could benefit others. Next time the calves will get creep feed and creep grazing. Even without creep feed and less calf gain in drylot, I feel positive about the drylot because pastures were not overgrazed and cows came through in much better shape. All cows in both groups were bred in such a short breeding season.
Problems we encountered with drylot that needed to be and were handled satisfactorily included fly control, manure cleaning, and additional labor for feeding. At weaning, calves that were in drylot came to the feed bunk sooner and accepted the pen feeding conditions more readily. Drylot calves had weaned at a lighter weight but made up the difference before they were sold. We plan to continue feeding drylot cows in order to conserve our pastures in dry years and carry more cows in good years. We also can take advantage of old, cheap cows that can be purchased at opportunity and supported very well with drylot feeding even though some may be broken mouth cows.
Farmer Cooperator Jim Ludwig family, New Rockford, North Dakota:
During the summer and fall of 1992, we manage 45 crossbred and Limousin cow/calf pairs in the following three groups:
(2)a 4 acre grass lot or
The pasture was stocked at one pair per 5 acres. The cows were weighed, condition scored and sorted on June 1, 1992. The 127 day trial ended at weaning on October 6. 1992. The cow/calf pairs in drylot were fed wheat screenings, alfalfa-grass hay and free choice cornstover. The grass lot pairs were fed the same feeds but were offered free choice oat straw. Pasture cows received no supplemental feed.
Calves in all three treatments were offered malt barley pellets as creep feed starting June 1 with the drylot and grasslot calves also receiving grass hay free choice. Malt barley pellets are a by-product of the malting process and consist of dried spent barley, dried sprouts, and light, thin kernels cleaned from the grain before the grain is sprouted. Intake of both hay and pellets increased gradually until weaning when drylot and grasslot calves were consuming approximately 8.33 pounds of malt barley pellets and 3.66 pounds of grass hay. No grass lot or drylot cows were open. However, 2 of the 15 pasture cows were open, one with twins and one being an older cow.
Fly control was a problem in drylot and less so in the grasslot. Dust was a serious problem due to dry weather and blowing dirt in the drylot. We lost two calve to dust pneumonia.
The grasslot cows gained surprisingly well at 86 pounds per head, drylot cows gained 80 pounds per head while pasture cows gained 2 pounds per head. Calf gains tended to favor the drylot calves followed by the grasslot calves and the pasture calves gained the least. Creep feed consumption followed the same pattern and may explain the differences in gain.
Drylotting cattle is an alternative to pasturing cattle if grass is short or not available and adequate feed supplies are available for the right price. It takes more management and labor for the daily chores. Drylot or grasslot pairs are easier to handle for artificial insemination, are very calm and easy to handle being used to people and machinery, are easier to treat for health problems, removal of herd sires is easier, and calf weaning is easily accomplished and much less stressful to the calf.
Some disadvantages include additional labor required for daily feeding chores, repeated need for fly control, extra wear and tear on facilities and equipment, more fencing repairs, and animals may not have access to shade and cooling winds during hot weather.
Farmer Cooperator, Ed Walton, Walton Bean Company, Engelvale, North Dakota:
Ed conducted cooperative studies on the use of edible bean splits as a protein source for beef cattle. His cropping system consists largely of corn for grain and edible beans. The by-products are corn stover, corn screenings and edible bean splits. Bean splits are the broken or split bean seed from mostly pinto and navy beans. With the large volume of splits available and only salvage prices paid by commercial feed companies, he wanted to evaluate the use of this by-product on the farm in a value added livestock operation. To accomplish that goal, he developed a drylot cow operation using corn stover, edible bean splits and corn screenings as the major ration ingredients. Initially, he fed bean splits at no higher than 2 pounds per head per day for lactating beef cows in drylot. Higher levels caused severe diarrhea. The goal was to feed higher levels to utilize more of the bean splits. Several different processing methods were tried and after roasting, intake of bean splits was increased to 5 pounds with no digestive problems. This level met protein requirements for lactating cows and provided for adequate milk production, growth and rebreeding. The cow diets consisted of approximately 5 pounds of edible bean splits, 5 pounds of corn screenings and corn stover offered free choice.
To operate the extensive drylot enterprise, Ed and his staff constructed some innovative feeding lanes with easily cleaned feeding floors useful for coarse forages that are not all consumed. This system also make short work of snow removal. He has built a lane behind his feeding apron in order to double shift his bunk line, feeding one set of cows in the morning and one set in the afternoon. He gathers virtually all of the combine tailings from corn harvest with a stack wagon, grazes remaining corn residue when available and utilizes area pastures when the opportunity is there. The manure goes back on the land.
Preconditioning Weaned Calves:
Calves sold off the cow at weaning are not able to put on efficient gain for their owners. Producers who wean and feed calves on the farm can add value to their forages, feed grains and cropping system by-products. Calves weaned earlier than normal(September) can be especially efficient and profitable. Weaned steer calves, n=104, raised in drylot by average milking cows were fed post weaning diets of corn silage, chopped hay and grain. The grain component consisted of
1) barley or
2) equal parts of screenings and barley.
The two diets were fed with and without a probiotic supplement during a 28 day post weaning preconditioning trial. Steers fed barley gained 3.49 lb. per day vs. 3.47 for screenings-barley mix diets. Probiotic fed steers gained 3.50 lb. per head per day vs. 3.48 for control animals. It is apparent from these data that ground wheat screenings can be substituted for up to one half of the grain during post weaning feedlot adaptation. This would reduce cost and allow more on farm use of cropping system by-products. Probiotic supplement in this study had no impact on gain or calf health.
Low Input Drylot Sheep Production:
Ninety western white-faced 3 year old ewes were randomly allotted to three treatments. High input (HI) diets consisted of alfalfa haylage. Low input diets consist of :50% wheat straw, 50% alfalfa haylage (LIW), and 50% corn stover, 50% alfalfa haylage (LIC). All diets were self fed and supplemented with grain prior to breeding and lambing and during lactation. All groups were maintained in a controlled environment structure.
The first objective was to determine comparable feeding values of wheat straw and cornstalks when compared to traditional sheep feeds. The second objective was to determine replacement fertilizer value of raw manure produced from non-traditional feeding regimes based on salvage feeds harvested. Values for manure quality will be presented in future reports.
Results from this trial are show ewe body condition scores were significantly greater(< .05) for HI fed ewes than either LIC or LIW fed ewes at lambing and weaning. There was a measurable difference in mean ewe body weights between HI and LI diets, however, they were non-significant.
Reproductive performance favored the HI at 1.16 lambs weaned per ewe lambing with .94 and .73 for corn stover and wheat straw groups. Lamb birth and growth information was similar across treatments with no significant differences.
There are apparent economic advantages when comparing HI diets to LIC and LIW diets. In this scenario, sheep respond to the higher quality diet with increased lamb weaning percent. Even though feed costs were highest for the HI, feed cost per lamb weaned was the same as ewes on the corn stover treatment. Feed costs per pound of lamb weaned also favored HI diets at $1.11 vs. 1.20 and 1.40 for corn stover and wheat straw diets.
More study is needed to determine the whole farm impact of marketing crop residues through the sheep operation. HI sheep produced 1747 pounds of manure compared to 1532 for corn stover diets and 1463 for wheat straw.
Objective 2: Quantify nitrogen and carbon movement, and effects, from removing crop products and returning manure to low-input cropping systems.
This component of the project was included to gather actual data which links animal enterprises with crop performance. A field-scale, large plot cropping systems experiment initiated in 1987 at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center was used in conjunction with the beef cow/calf herd at the same location. Previously reported findings from this experiment included crop performance data and the recovery of nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) after cycling crop residues through a drylot cow/calf herd. Of the C harvested and fed to the cattle, 40 to 50% was returned in the composted manure. As much as 70-80% of the N was recovered when feeding supplementary hay, which added to the N coming back to the cultivated field. Though the cropping systems study includes several crop rotation, tillage, and fertilizer treatment levels, for this analysis the treatments have been narrowed to focus on the impact of using manure as a fertilizer and tillage changes which may be necessary to allow harvesting of crop residues (Table 1).
Table 1. Treatment factors and levels included in cropping system/livestock performance evaluation at Carrington, ND.
1) spring wheat/sunflower/barley/fallow
2) spring wheat/spring-planted forage legume green manured/corn/soybean
1) conventional: at least three operations annually with <30% cover after planting.
2) minimum: no use of inversion tillage tools and generally two operations annually. Usually >30% cover after planting.
3) no till: absolutely no tillage has occurred in these plots since 1985 other than disturbance caused by disc-opener planting equipment. Always >30 % cover after planting.
1) low: from 1987 -1990, 30 lb. N; from 1990-1993 0 lb. N spring applied as ammonia nitrate to all plots except those for legumes or fallow.
2) medium: from 1987 -1990, 60 lb. N; from 1990-1993 40 lb. N spring applied as ammonia nitrate to all plots except those for legumes or fallow.”
3) high: from 1987 -1990, 90 lb. N; from 1990-1993 80 lb. N spring applied as ammonia nitrate to all plots except those for legumes or fallow.
4) manure: an average of 6 tons (3 tons dry matter) composted beef manure applied in the spring of 1989 and 1991 which supplied a total (inorganic and organic N) of 90 lb. N per acre with each application.
Some of the advantages of coupling a ruminant animal enterprise to a cropping operation include: 1) the ability to have greater choice of crops to grow since forages and other feeds can essentially be ‘marketed’ on the farm,
2) the ability to salvage damaged or otherwise unusable crops, and
3) the opportunity to make profitable use of crop residues after the grain is harvested. Straw and other crop residues, however, are also an important and needed resource to cycle through the soil as well. Increasingly, soil quality is being linked to a regular and abundant input of organic matter. Crop residues are also important in the field to prevent soil erosion during the non-growing season. Conservation compliance plans now being put into practice across the country frequently require the maintenance of surface cover on highly erodable fields.
In response to the need of both crops and livestock, the objectives of the data reported here were to asses the ability of composted beef manure and/or legumes to substitute for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and, to explore if reduced tillage systems interact with these various sources of fertility. Alternative tillage practices, such as minimum or no-till, may be needed to preserve surface cover when harvesting crop residues for livestock feed.
The common crop reference among both rotations was wheat and it’s performance over time was used to measure the impact of the fertility and tillage. Grain yields varied between 1988 and 1992 mainly due to differences in precipitation. Both 1988 and 1989 were among the driest years on record for rainfall received during wheat growth. After harvest in 1989, rain came and near ideal weather for cereal grains occurred during 1990/91. An abnormally cool year in 1992 again reduced overall yield levels.
Grain yields were slightly higher after fallow as compared to soybeans, especially in 1991. Given the N response, much of the yield reduction after soybeans seems attributed to a lack of sufficient N. Within the soybean, or alternating legume rotation, one of the principle N inputs comes from the green manured forage legume. Wheat harvested in 1991 had it’s ‘green fallow’ in 1988, which was a failure due to insufficient moisture to achieve a stand. Rotation effects last for several years and must be anticipated, especially when relying upon them for the primary source of nutrients.
The composted manure generally performed well, especially in the year following application. In both 1990 and 1992, the manure treatment frequently was among the highest in grain yield. Just as a green fallow legume serves as a slow-release source of nutrients, the manure also seemed most effective after a year for mineralization. Tillage helped speed soil nutrient cycling and generally the manure performed the best relative to the N fertilizers when accompanied with conventional tillage.
As expected, the combination of using ‘black’ fallow in rotation with conventional tillage encouraged the highest concentrations of soil nitrate-N. Both the lack of organic matter input from black fallow and the stirring action of intensive tillage shifted soil N into inorganic forms. Crop management which encouraged the binding of soil N to organic forms and away from nitrate came from both reducing tillage and using biologically fixed N from legumes. The notable exception was the greater nitrate concentrations found in wheat after soybeans at the high N rate with minimum tillage. Within this treatment combination, supplying N from both plant and fertilizer sources apparently overloaded the system and will be further investigated.
Generally, the manure treatments resulted in similar nitrate concentrations as the high N fertilizer rates when conventionally tilled, and like the medium N rate with less intensive tillage. These data seem to indicate a significant interaction between N source (legumes or manure vs. fertilizer) and tillage intensity. Knowing these interactions can help avoid either N starvation or N overloads, which could be detrimental to water quality.
As a check on nitrate leaching losses, deep samples were taken in the manured and medium N rate plots during the fall of 1992. Where fallowed and conventionally tilled, the manured plots seemed to consistently have greater deep leaching of soil nitrates than the medium rate of fertilizer N. Otherwise, the manured plots contained roughly the same concentrations of deep soil nitrate as the medium N rate. As with the shallower sampling, more intensive tillage tended to have the greatest nitrate concentrations within the root zone as compared to minimum, or no tillage. Also, the alternating legume rotation seemed to have slightly lower concentrations of nitrate as compared to the fallow rotation. The alternating legume rotation had fertilizer N applied in two out of four years. The fallow rotation was fertilized three out of four years.
Used appropriately, composted beef manure was able to provide the same wheat yield results as the high level of fertilizer N. Knowing when, and how much fertility biological sources of N will provide to growing crops is critical however, to best utilize them. They do not react as chemical fertilizers. Composted beef manure gave the greatest results in the second year after application, and the impact of a failed green-manured legume was observed four years later. Tillage seems a viable management option to either hasten, or slow, nutrient cycling. These data reveal the complexity, but also help provide information needed to develop innovative, productive, and environmentally sensitive crop/livestock production systems for the Northern Plains.
Objective 3: Compare whole farm economic returns from conventional cropping systems, low input cropping systems and low input crop-livestock production systems.
The focus of economic analysis was on maximizing “net farm income”. Coefficients generated from the cropping system study and beef cow and sheep trials were entered into a “Low-Purchased-Input Farming Systems” (LPIF) model for linear programming analysis. The linear program was based on maximizing returns to overhead. The model farm used as the basis for this study was considered to participate in the Government feed grains program to the maximum extent possible. The model farm was typical of east central North Dakota family farm operating 1132 acres. Two different crop rotations were compared in this study for an exclusively grain farm, grain farm with drylot beef cow herd and grain farm with a confined sheep flock. Conservation and conventional tillage methods were superimposed over the two cropping systems with fertility provided by anhydrous ammonia or composted beef manure.
Composted manure at 6 tons per acre applied on alternate years produced an average annual wheat yield of 40.7 bushels per acre compared to 36.6 bushels for wheat fertilized with 50 pounds of anhydrous ammonia annually. Nitrogen costs were $.1433 per pound for composted manure and $.1608 for ammonia nitrogen. Returns to overhead for the crops only farms averaged $36,101 and $39,912 for conventional and conservation systems respectively. The same model farm would support 85 beef cows and 219 ewes with labor, feed and other available resources. Beef cows would return to overhead $64,222 and $67,409 for conventional and conservation tillage systems at an increased annual capital requirement of $7,360 and $7,156.
Adding ewes to the farm would return to overhead $57,067 for conventional tillage using $3,976 more capital annually. Conservation tillage returns and capital increase was $60,331 and $3,701.
Coefficient of variation for returns to overhead for the crops only and crop-livestock integrated farms dropped from .83 to .49 for conventional tillage and .86 to .46 for conservation tillage with beef cows. Adding sheep reduce the variation in returns to overhead from .83 to .52 for conventional tillage and .86 to .48 for conservation tillage.
Adding livestock to a specialized grain farm requires additional management skills, capital and labor. Coordination of production schedules is important in order to minimize labor deficit during the spring calving/lambing vs. planting schedule and during the fall harvest vs. weaning/feeding labor needs.
This completed study with beef cow/calf and ewe/lamb enterprises successfully supported largely by cropping system by-products suggest livestock can be managed successfully and contribute to the profitability and stability of family farms. Integrating more farms with crop/livestock operations may have a significant positive impact on family farms and small rural communities. In real terms, the beef cow inventory in the state of North Dakota could be doubled without substantial changes in cropping systems due to the large amount of cropping systems residues and processing by-products that are produced and shipped out of the region. This is a protein rich area, producing oil seed meals, barley and legume hays. These are easily combined with crop residues and low quality to forages to meet the nutritional needs of beef cows or ewes.
Since labor is one of the biggest negatives to managing drylot cows, self feeding systems that include appropriate proportions of residue in balance diets need to be explored. Along with this is a tremendous need to develop low waste or waste free feeding systems. A diversified approach to sustainable farming may wean some growers from the government subsidy program. These producers can make use of more creative and diverse cropping systems that include lupines and other new niche crops. A strong research base needs to be developed and publicized to reduce the risk for farmers who want to try some new crops.
See objective 3.
Changes in Practice
The single biggest problem in implementing the focus of this study is that crops only farmers will have to contribute more labor, especially during cold winter months to maintain the cow herd.
This problem may be overcome by demonstration, where one farmer sees another making money off his cow herd supported by little other than crop products. Additionally, younger farmers need to be enlighten to understand that diversification is desirable. Cooperation between two or more neighbors to reduce intensity of labor needs or share management practices such as herd work, calving techniques etc. may be another approach. Mentoring, where new livestock operators are paired with experience people may work also.
Number of growers/ranchers in attendance at: Workshops: 275
Field Days: 1280
Other events: 320 (specify) group tours, annual meetings
Educational & Outreach Activities
This project has been introduced to Northern Plains crop and livestock producers through direct observation at the experiment stations, farm tours as the experiment was in progress, field days, group tours, industry sponsored meetings and county producer meetings and extension and experiment station publications. Results have been summarized by component, published and disseminated to all interested farmers, farm organizations and others interested in integrated sustainable agriculture. The final report will be published in state and regional publications. Based on results and lessons learned, alternative approaches to low input crop-livestock production will be featured.
Areas needing additional study
Additional research is needed to identify impact of increased crop/livestock diversification on economic health of small rural communities, farm family stability, family-community interaction and environmental aspects of decentralized livestock operations.