No-till Livestock-Grain Rotation for Diversified Farms

Final Report for SW06-066

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $125,122.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Federal Funds: $13,737.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,997.00
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Stephen Bramwell
WSU Dept. Crop and Soil Sciences
Lynne Carpenter-Boggs
Washington State University
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Project Information


Crop-livestock integration may provide multiple economic, social and environmental benefits to farmers in the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho. This project was created to develop the potential for integrated livestock-grain low-disturbance farming systems for the Palouse region. This project utilized agronomic, economic, educational and networking methods to identify and address challenges to crop-livestock systems, undertake on-farm and university station research, review recent and historic literature, and engage regional producers. Through producer-researcher-extension working groups the advantages, issues, and barriers to such systems have been identified, discussed, iteratively refined, and addressed.

Although many producers see good economic potential for such integration, agronomic and management questions must be addressed before a complete economic picture can emerge. The most common producer question, how to transition from pasture to row-crop production, is being addressed directly through trials on a cooperator farm. Long-term Agroecosystem Research Trials are being used to compare several rotation options including crop-livestock integration. Research objectives focused on (1) assessing method of tillage to terminate alfalfa in an organic system, soil nitrogen (N) dynamics, soil moisture and crop yield during the grain phase of an integrated crop-livestock system, (2) pasture establishment, productivity, and carrying capacity on the livestock side of this system, (3) describing historic and current conditions/obstacles with respect to crop-livestock integration, and (4) developing informational material.

Results from this work indicate that minimum disturbance pasture termination in an organic crop-livestock system resulted in a 68 percent grain yield penalty compared to moldboard plow. Grain yield potential for no-fertilizer, no-pesticide crop-livestock systems was 82 percent of county average. Profitability of the grain rotation component in the integrated system was 157 percent greater than grain production in a non-integrated system. Tillage and soil moisture had minimal effect on soil inorganic N. Soil quality, pasture establishment methods and pasture species composition need refining to improve pasture carrying capacity.

Producer, researcher, student and political participation in, or attention to, crop-livestock field days, field site visits, research projects and educational materials suggest potential for integrated systems to be viewed socially as viable alternatives to current annual crop systems. Review papers indicate a strong need to improve these grain-centric, annual cropping systems, as well as a well-established body of crop-livestock literature to guide future research and development. Results from this work, as well as recent, dramatic fluctuations in energy, fertilizer, and commodity markets continue to point to a positive role for crop-livestock integration in the Palouse, though in an increasingly complex political, economic and social climate.

Project Objectives:
  1. Form a crop-livestock working group and identify needs and obstacles to crop-livestock integration

    Review the historic, economic and environmental basis for integration of livestock into annual crop rotations in the Palouse

    Build on past and on-going crop-livestock research (both SARE-funded and otherwise) to articulate a well-informed (both historically and with respect to recent work) research agenda for the future assessment and development of crop-livestock systems in a manner specifically suited to the geographic, economic and environmental conditions of the Palouse region

    Utilize on-farm research trials to (1) determine the feasibility of minimum-tillage techniques to transition from perennial forage to annual grains, (2) quantify the impact of method of tillage on soil inorganic N concentrations, (3) determine the effect of moisture on soil inorganic N, and (3) determine the profitability of integrated organic grain-grassfed beef production compared to non-integrated organic grain production.

    Utilize trials at PCFS to determine the costs, productivity and carrying capacity of organic hay/pasture system in the Palouse region as the initiating rotation phase in a crop-livestock or crop-hay farming system


Conventional Palouse wheat-based cropping systems may no longer be possible due to lack of profitability and exhaustion of natural capital. Global commodity price fluctuations, competing foreign producers, widespread consumer indifference to conventional agriculture, and potential cuts to government support programs are threatening an entire population of farmers that depend on a small number of crops for export market. Environmental concerns associated with intensive tillage grain farming are also cropping up. A century of agriculture in the region resulted in one hundred percent topsoil loss for 10 percent of the cropland and 25 to 75 percent loss for another 60 percent (USDA, 1978). Well-water pesticide and nitrate levels in Washington State have increased and sometimes exceed EPA standards (Williamson et al., 1998). Increasing fuel and fertilizer costs, soil erosion, increasing soil acidity, surface and groundwater contamination, near complete loss of native ecosystems, and declining soil quality threaten the long-term agricultural sustainability of cereal production in the Pacific Northwest. ((Jennings et al., 1990; Mahler and Harder, 1984; Noss et al., 1995; Rasmussen et al., 1989; USDA-NASS, 2005).

Biologically intensive farming systems offer alternatives to current farming practices. These include agroecosystem approaches, Biodynamic agriculture, Natural Systems Agriculture, New Conservation Agriculture, and organic agriculture. Where these systems have been sufficiently developed and refined, they are proving to be highly productive, economically competitive and environmentally conservative (Allen et al., 2005; Badgley et al., 2007; Pretty et al., 2006). Crop-livestock integration is one of several strategies that have been increasingly emphasized for their importance to achieving sustainability in alternative farming systems. Russelle et al. (2007) identify crop-livestock integration as a key practice in New Conservation Agriculture, finding notable economic, energetic and environmental potential. Pretty (2006) included crop-livestock integration among seven ecological management practices responsible for improving yields and minimizing negative environmental externalities in developing countries.

Farmers in the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho are well aware of the limitations of the current intensive tillage wheat-fallow system. Re-integration of livestock into cropping systems is increasingly acknowledged for its potential to diversify income, increase productivity of the land, and control weeds. While many farmers are aware of the limitations of conventional farming systems, and the “potential” for alternatives appears promising, there remain daunting challenges to incorporating biologically intensive practices into specific farming regions with well-established economic, cultural and agronomic habits. Members of our work group suggest that a lack of alternatives can largely explain the persistence of limited conventional cropping systems. This project was conceived to assess and develop the potential for crop-livestock integration as an alternative to annual grain-based farming systems in the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho. As the primary environmental challenge in the Palouse is an extremely high erosion rate and potential, sustainable systems must be developed to work with low disturbance. This research seeks to determine and demonstrate methods for crop-livestock integration using minimum tillage, and assess how these methods affect sustainability, productivity and profitability.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Steve Fransen
  • Joel Huesby
  • Melissa Lines
  • John Pearson
  • John Reganold
  • Mark Stannard
  • Steve Vanvleet


Materials and methods:

Form a crop-livestock working group

Beginning in January 2006, a list of regional farmers and researchers potentially interested in assessing crop-livestock integration was compiled. Email messages and telephone calls were made. In late summer 2006 an agenda was drawn up, conference space was obtained, and presentations were solicited on topics related to crop-livestock integration including Holistic Range Management, the prospect of controlled-grazing of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and farmer experiences producing and marketing organic grassfed beef in the northwest. Presentations were made by the project coordinators reviewing crop-livestock systems, and livestock management in the Palouse.

The working group meeting was organized around the concept of holistic management by a Holistic Range Management trainer. The meeting included discussions of why attendees were participating, how they felt, and what they hoped to achieve. Subsequently a list of problems with Palouse agriculture, obstacles to crop-livestock integration, goals, outcomes and objectives, and steps to achieve goals was assembled via directed discussion (Table 1).

Between 2006 and late summer 2008, the participants of the crop-livestock working group maintained contact in the context of the component of the project with which they were specifically engaged, and at field days. Considerable overlap emerged with a complementary project, Beefing up the Palouse, organized by project coordinator Lynne Carpenter-Boggs through the Washington State University Biologically Intensive and Organic Agriculture (BIOAg) program. The working group from this WSARE project, in modified form, constituted the farmers and researchers working on Beefing Up the Palouse as well, which is focused on controlled grazing of CRP land, transitioning dryland wheat farms to organic, grassfed beef production, and assessing suitable grass and legume species for year-round dryland pasture production in Benge, Wash. (14 in. annual rainfall).

Review historic, economic and environmental basis for integration in the Palouse

Between 2006 and 2008, a historical investigation and scientific literature review was undertaken to assess the basis for crop-livestock integration in the Palouse. Information was utilized from reputable historic texts, personal communications with farmers and researchers, and peer-reviewed journal articles on the condition of natural resources in the Palouse, on resource quality in agriculture in general, and numerous other topics comparing different farming systems such as energy use, economic performance, weeds and pests, water use, soil quality parameters, and impact on natural ecosystems and ecosystem services. A manuscript of this material is being prepared for peer-review.

Articulate a well-informed research agenda for future development of crop-livestock systems

In 2007, work undertaken to assess the basis for crop-livestock integration indicated a substantial body of literature on research and development work on integrated crop-livestock systems. Consequently, preparation of manuscript concerning research and development needs for crop-livestock farming systems in the Palouse was undertaken. This manuscript intended to draw from crop-livestock literature nationally and globally, but focus the literature so as to be specifically useful to future research and production work on these systems in the Palouse. Extensive use was made of the rapidly expanding crop-livestock literature, as well as literature pertaining to no-till agriculture, forage systems including hayed and grazed models, animal science with respect to breeding and performance in grazing situations, crop science with respect to forage breeding, soil carbon sequestration, ecosystem health including water and habitat quality, economics, marketing and food distribution, energy use and other areas.

On-farm trials

In September 2006, trials were initiated at Thundering Hooves farm in Walla Walla, Washington on the western edge of the Palouse region. This farm has raised organic grassfed beef on irrigated alfalfa and grass pasture since 1998. Conversion of alfalfa to an annual cereal crop has traditionally been achieved using a moldboard plow. In this experiment, treatments consisted of three primary tillage operations following 10 years of alfalfa pasture: (1) moldboard plowing to a depth of 10 cm; (2) low soil disturbance under-cutting sweeps operated at 7 cm depth with 100% surface coverage and (3) low soil disturbance undercutting sweeps operated at 7 cm depth with 80% coverage. A fourth treatment was managed as grazed alfalfa, which received simulated grazing three times during the growing season. Plots were 4.5 m by 8 m, arranged in a randomized complete block design with four tillage treatments (including zero tillage residual alfalfa) and four blocks. Treatment means were analyzed by Tukey pairwise comparisons. Primary tillage operations were imposed in the fall of 2006 and spring of 2007. Organically certified triticale grain (var. 37812) purchased from Progene Plant Research (Othello, WA) was sown on March 7th, 2007.

Soil cores were collected at spring seeding, grain harvest (July 12th) and fall (Nov. 21st) to 2.4 m by 30 cm depth-increments and analyzed for inorganic soil N using an ALPKEM RFA™ 300 auto-analyzer. Tillage effectiveness was measured by grain yield, aboveground biomass and number of alfalfa crowns that survived tillage. Alfalfa managed in a simulated grazing manner served as a baseline comparison for soil N dynamics. Alfalfa biomass and yield data was collected for economic comparisons between a pasture-only and an integrated pasture-grain cropping system. Data was collected to assess profitability, including infrastructure and field operations with some generalized data utilized from typical farm budgets for the region.

Pasture establishment, productivity and carrying capacity at the PCFS

On May 17th and 18th, 2006, adjacent grass-clover and alfalfa forages were respectively established at the Palouse Conservation Field Station(PCFS), 8km from Pullman, Wash. Fields that had been sown to Austrian winter peas in fall 2005 were terminated May 10th using an under-cutting sweep and cultivated with a harrow to prepare a seed bed. The grass-clover pasture consisted of Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata), Perennial Rye (Lolium perenne L.), Meadow Brome (Bromus commutatus), Ladino Clover (Trifolium repens) and Red Clover (Trifolium pretense), sown at respective rates of 4, 6, 7, 1 and 3 lbs per acre. Seed drill boxes openings were physically separated and grass and clover were seeded individually on alternating six inch centers. The alfalfa (Medicago sativa, var. Dynamic) forage was sown at a rate of 20 lbs per acre on six inch centers. Seeding operations were undertaken using a John Deere 4240 tractor and John Deere van Brundt seed drill.

Grazed grass-clover pasture and hayed alfalfa forage constituted two treatments and were managed as two distinct options for Palouse growers to diversify annual grain rotations with perennial forage crops. These treatments were added as ‘organic, perennial-based cropping systems options’ to ongoing treatments at the PCFS that are managed as the USDA-ARS Agroecosystem Research Trials (ART). The ongoing ART treatments consist of no-till wheat, perennial wheat, and a native prairie planting. This project focused on the two organic treatments (grass-clover and alfalfa), but sampling data will in the future be utilized from the other ART treatments for comparisons of soil quality and profitability.

Three replications of grass-clover and alfalfa pastures were established in strips at the PCFS, utilizing three separate locations on this research station. Each forage strip traversed three landscape positions (including top slope, mid slope and toe slope) to reflect the natural variation in topography of the Palouse region. The strips, located in previously-numbered fields 1, 5 and 7, were 1.22, 1.0 and 1.0 acres respectively. Grass-clover was sown to two-thirds of each strip, while alfalfa was sown to the remaining one-third. Both grass-clover and alfalfa strips were allowed to establish in 2006, with no grazing or haying activity. Visual and photographic field checks were made four times during the season. High-tensile electric fences were built in March 2007, utilizing a regional Gallagher Fencing representative. Economic data was gathered to assess fencing infrastructure costs.

On May 18th, 2007, three mixed Suffolk-Icelandic groups of sheep were introduced to the three grass-clover pasture strips in fields 1, 5 and 7 at respective lamb-ewe rates of 4-6, 4-6 and 3-7. Sheep were removed on June 27th, for a total grazing period of forty-one days. Data was collected on sheep weight gain and aboveground forage biomass production. Alfalfa strips in fields 1, 5 and 7 received no grazing, and were hayed in June. Strips were grazed again in 2008 in a similar fashion and data from this season is being reviewed.

Research results and discussion:

Form a crop-livestock working group

A Palouse crop-livestock working group composed of farmers and researchers convened in 2006 to assess the possibilities of crop-livestock integration. The group was motivated by the potential to reduce chemical input costs, regenerate local meat production and processing businesses, and connect the soil conserving benefits of sod-based crop rotations with cash grain production. This working group identified shortcomings of export-based grain farming in the region, obstacles to crop-livestock systems as an alternative, and a set of potential outcomes and goals relevant to overcoming these obstacles.

A review of the ten general obstacles identified by this working group suggests the first eight would be best addressed at the regional level. This assessment corresponds with perspectives in other crop-livestock review papers that “there is a need for more advanced research on crop-livestock systems within the climatic and edaphic conditions and policy environments in which they will be employed” {{126 Entz, M.H. 2002}}.

Review historic, economic and environmental basis for integration in the Palouse

Research and development to overcome obstacles to crop-livestock integration in the Palouse should be conducted in the Palouse, but an expanding body of knowledge now exists in this specific literature to help guide the effort. Table 3 presents a cross-section, though not comprehensive treatment, of important research topics for the advancement of crop-livestock integration in the Palouse. Needed information is organized by discipline and study area, and annotated with guiding literature relevant to the topic.

Articulate a well-informed research agenda for future development of crop-livestock systems

Successful research and development efforts on developing crop-livestock farming systems for the Palouse will necessarily be tailored to the specific climatic and edaphic conditions found in this region. A brief summary of papers applicable to the future direction of crop-livestock research in the Palouse is presented in Table 3 in the Appendix. A manuscript covering this material in relation to the Palouse is being prepared for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Some primary conditions specific to the Palouse that will impact the type of crop-livestock integration possible for this region include (i) the aridity of the region and its uneven seasonal rainfall distribution, (ii) the characteristically steep Palouse hills that range in grade from 7 to 50 percent, (iii) the geographic isolation from urban markets as well as other potential sources of fertility (such as feedlots), and (iv) relatively little surface water flow.

On-farm trials

Method of tillage/termination of alfalfa significantly impacted triticale grain yield, alfalfa regrowth, and soil inorganic N accumulation. A significant concentration of subsoil inorganic N accumulated between 90 and 150 cm in the alfalfa control at various times from spring to fall. There was a positive correlation between the number of surviving alfalfa crowns and total aboveground biomass, and a negative correlation between surviving alfalfa crowns and triticale grain yield. Grain yield was therefore inversely related to method of tillage, with moldboard plow yielding 2.58 times that of the best performing conservation tillage method (100% coverage under-cutting sweeps).

Soil mineralization as measured by incubated [NH4-N] was 5.4 and 2.4 times greater in the 100% sweep treatment than the plow and alfalfa treatments at mid-summer, respectively. By fall, there was 1.62 and 1.76 times greater non-incubated soil [NO3-N] in the 100% treatment than plow and alfalfa. No significant differences in soil inorganic N were observed between plow and alfalfa treatments at any time.

Utilizing crop and livestock integration to close on-farm N cycles and increase profit depends on adequate control of perennial pastures in rotation. Conservation tillage treatments resulted in yields well below acceptable levels. These trials did not reveal tillage effects between plow and undisturbed alfalfa; however, significant block interactions and significant block x treatment interactions suggest a high degree of spatial variability in soil organic N in our research plots.

Pasture establishment, productivity and carrying capacity at the PCFS

Pasture establishment and productivity assessments at the PCFS indicated a need to improve pasture establishment practices due to slow establishment, low productivity, and lack of legume persistence in the pasture sward. Data from two grazing seasons is being reviewed for economic assessments, and changes in soil quality from grazed forage, ungrazed forage, and annual systems will be analyzed.

Research conclusions:

Some of the benefits to producers from this project have stemmed from the discussion of alternative farm systems in the work group and field days. Our region’s agricultural economy is highly dependent on a small handful of crops, along with the Conservation Reserve Program. Many producers are struggling financially and philosophically with this dependence and rigidity. Agronomic, management, and economic concerns and opportunities were identified, clarified, and addressed through this project.

Outputs of energetic and economic comparisons of local farming systems will be useful in producer decision-making. Closer cycling of nutrients through the integration of livestock, and demonstration of this potential, is improving consumer-producer relations and improving consumer/policy-maker opinions about sustainable livestock production.

In field tours, over 100 producers and 50 policy-makers and agricultural and environmental interest groups were introduced to these crop-livestock integration efforts. The exposure of these key individuals to the aesthetic, economic, social, and environmental potential of integration could have far-reaching effects.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Four manuscripts are in preparation as a result of recent work-completed on this project:

The basis for crop-livestock integration in the Palouse,
Research and development needs for crop-livestock integration in the Inland Northwest, US,
Productivity, profitability and nitrogen fertility of organic crop-livestock production, and
Economic assessment of organic crop-livestock integration at Thundering Hooves farm.

The first three manuscripts will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals. The fourth will be published as an extension bulletin and/or submitted to an agricultural research communications journal. A summary of this work will be developed and submitted to a trade journal(s) to enable regional accessibility to this work among farmers. A popular press article covering the research is also in progress.

Two field days were held at the ART plots to present and discuss the project with producers. One field day was held at the cooperator farm plots.

Materials on crop-livestock farming systems were introduced into the online version of WSU’s Soils 101 Organic Gardening and Farming course in summer 2008.

A conference paper, “Challenges and benefits of crop-livestock integration” was accepted and presented at the 8th European Summer Academy on Organic Farming in Lednice na Moravě, Czech Republic, on September 4th, 2008.

Two resultant lines of study have been developed and funded:
Carbon sequestration consequences of various PNW agroecosystems.
Continued and broadened investigation (in both method and location) of organic low-disturbance take-out of pasture and alfalfa.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Integrating a grain crop into the alfalfa pasture rotation increased returns over total costs through an increase in returns over variable costs. Returns over total costs for each of these components of crop rotations were $442/ha, $166/ha and $91/ha for integrated Triticale, non-integrated Triticale and grazed alfalfa, respectively.

Substantial profitability seems possible when grain crops are integrated into livestock production. Increased returns over variable costs resulted because grains integrated with alfalfa pasture required no fertilizer or weed management. This enabled the integrated, organic grain crop to be more profitable than either organic grassfed beef or organic grains raised in isolation.

Farmer Adoption

Despite dramatic increases in the commodity prices of wheat and most other grains, input prices particularly fertilizer and fuel prices are also so high that profitability is still in question. The options of renting out pasture ground (so that new infrastructure costs are limited) and/or organic grain production are increasingly interesting in the minds of many producers and researchers. The demonstration and discussion of integrated crop-livestock systems has coalesced over 12 WSU researchers and extension agents around the topic, working with dozens of producers. Over the past year several new projects have developed, stemming from or related to the present project. We are involved with one farm in particular where CRP and wheat lands are being converted to organic grass-fed beef. In coordination with this SARE project, economic and environmental goals and effects will be assessed, as will the replicability of this model across the current dryland agroecosystem of central and eastern Washington.


Areas needing additional study

  • Palouse pasture establishment: by landscape position, Nurse crops

    Management practices to retain legumes in pasture stands

    CRP feed improvement: direct seeding vs. renovation; grass and legume selection

    Controlled grazing in CRP to optimize bird habitats

    Legume variety trials for persistence, drought tolerance and N-fixation

    Hydraulic conductivity & water storage in perennial systems: relationship to productivity

    Timing of perennial termination to manage water available to subsequent crop

    Synchrony of perennials and annuals with soil N mineralization (need data specific to Palouse)

    Fate of urine and fecal N resources in intensive rotational grazing

    Manure handling strategies to improve N cycling efficiency

    Soil Carbon storage potential and GHG emissions from pastured cattle and integrated systems

    Livestock genetics appropriate to planned grazing

    Quantification of nutrient/sediment run-off and erosion possible under perennials in the Palouse; impacts on water quality

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.