Our team of livestock and crop producers, researchers, educators, and extension specialists propose a research and education project that documents, disseminates, and demonstrates the impacts of incorporating livestock into grain, cover crop, and vegetable garden systems on soil health. We will investigate the effects of integrated plant-livestock production by determining impacts on the microbial diversity, biochemistry, and compaction of soil, and assess the resulting impacts on soil and plant tissue nutrients, and root biomass of cover crops as well as subsequent impacts on crop yields and livestock performance in both production farms and a field research environment. These biological, agronomic, and livestock responses will be the basis for future enterprise-level economic assessment of these diverse systems. We propose to conduct a broad-based series of independent studies to compare soil health and subsequent crop production in five diverse agricultural systems that include organic livestock, vegetable, and cash crop farms, and a university research farm. Finally, our project will demonstrate and disseminate not only results but we will also promote our integrated approach and develop best management practices led by a partnership between National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and Montana State University (MSU) extension. NCAT also manages the USDA ATTRA Project which has provided nationwide outreach and education on sustainable agriculture topics for over 28 years. Farmers should expect that the adoption of integrated crop–livestock systems will enhance both profitability and environmental sustainability of their farms and communities. We expect that findings of grazing-influenced relationships among soil microbial communities, soil biochemistry, soil health, and crop production will be well received by producers via our MSU and NCAT/ATTRA outreach programs. Our project has a high level of interest from a diverse group of commercial agricultural producers and high potential for engagement with a variety of producers and producer groups.
The research goal of this project is to understand how livestock-grazing activity affects soil biology and associated nutrient cycling when integrated in a variety of common cropping and vegetable production systems. Producers and scientists on our team agree that soil biology is linked to soil health which is clearly linked to sustainability. To accomplish this goal we will address four specific objectives on three commercial operations in Montana, one commercial operation in Colorado, and in a complementary long-term integrated livestock-cropping system at the MSU Fort Ellis Research and Teaching facility near Bozeman.
The research goal of this project is to understand how livestock-grazing activity affects soil biology and associated nutrient cycling when integrated in a variety of common cropping and vegetable production systems.
Nathan Merrill and Kody Cator will coordinate cattle grazing and tillage on their certified organic cover crop fields. Becky Weed will coordinate sheep grazing and tillage on an organic garden and/or cover crop system at her Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool operation. Dylan Strike operates Strike Farms, a diversified organic vegetable, herb and flower farming operation. Dylan will coordinate sheep and chicken-terminated versus tilled i) cover crop mixes and ii) small-scale vegetable farm crop residues. Eric and Jill Skokan operate Black Cat Farms, a certified organic farm that grows vegetables, grains, and livestock almost exclusively for their two restaurants in Boulder, CO. Eric and Jill will coordinate sheep-, hog-, and chicken/geese-terminated versus tilled i) cover crop mixes and ii) vegetable farm crop residues. At all of the above locations, grazing versus tillage will be set up in a replicated plots design with six 1-m2 exclosures/mechanical treatment and six 1-m2 marked plots in the grazed treatments. Grazing will occur when the forage reaches the appropriate physiological state. At the MSU-managed Fort Ellis site we have a foundational 5-yr crop rotation upon which all treatments are imposed. The crop rotation is: 1) safflower under-sown to biennial sweet clover, 2) sweet clover cover crop/green manure, 3) winter wheat, 4) lentils, and 5) winter wheat. Our treatments are: a) a no till system in which synthetic fertilizer and herbicides are used; b) a tilled organic system; and c) a grazed organic system in which grazing is used to minimize tillage. In addition, on the grazed treatment 3 and 5 winter wheat stubble plots we will have an in-field lamb feeding program (fed and finished with alfalfa pellets from September 1 until November 30) to allow for distribution of manure and urine. We will also evaluate methods of cover crop termination in the summer with grazing, tillage, and herbicide application. In all cases there will be 3 replicate plots/treatment with all crop/treatment combinations present each year. Plots are 1/3 acre each with a total of 45 plots.
Soil sampling at all sites
Two soil core samples will be collected before and after treatment imposition at five randomly selected locations within each plot at Fort Ellis using a 30-cm hydraulic probe (4 cm i.d.). At the cooperator sites there will be two samples taken from each 1-m2 plot. Soil cores will be divided into 0–5, 5–15, and 15–30 cm depth increments; a subsample will be stored for microbial analysis and the remaining sample used to determine soil nutrients. Samples will be sent to a commercial lab for a complete soil nutrient analysis.
Soil microbial communities
Dr. Carl Yeoman will lead efforts to investigate the effects of treatments on soil microbial diversity, with a focus on taxa already associated with nitrogen fixation, bioremediation, and phytohormone production. Soil subsamples will be stored at -80°C until used for nucleic acid extraction. Samples for DNA extraction and sequencing will be suspended in a commercially available soil DNA isolation solution and cells disrupted by a standard 1 minute beadbeating approach. DNA will be extracted and purified in an EPMotion 5075 liquid handling robot following manufacturer, and lab-validated protocols. For each DNA sample we will amplify and enrich both the V3-V4 region of a gene marker present in all bacterial, and the v9 region of the 18S rRNA gene present in all microbial eukaryotes by Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Specific changes within these regions can be accurately traced to the specific microbes to which each gene copy belongs. The PCR amplification step will add a unique DNA barcode to each end of the 16S or 18S rRNA gene regions being amplified allowing us to combine up to 190 samples along with positive (an artificially pooled (mock) community) and negative (processed PowerBead solution) controls in each sequencing runs. Samples will be sequenced using our Illumina MiSeq. MiSeq sequencing technology will result in approximately 10,000–30,000 reads per sample. We will use high-throughput data analysis protocols run on a computational resource to identify and quantify each microbial group present in the sample. Total microbial richness will be assessed through rarefaction analyses and α-diversity (number of species within a sample and how evenly they’re represented) estimated by Shannon’s diversity indices.
Devon Ragen will collect and analyze data to evaluate the effects of treatments on soil compaction. Three 30-cm cores (5 cm dia.) will be collected from each treatment replication. Gravimetric soil water content will be measured and soil bulk density will be measured for surface cores (0-10 cm). To improve our ability to detect changes in soil properties associated with applied treatments, sampling will be conducted within permanently identified microplots using the approach of Conant and Paustian.
Cover crop root dynamics
Residual above ground and root biomass will be measured from random samples collected from each plot. The root:shoot ratio will be calculated for each sample to assess root productivity and crop biomass. Root subsamples will be ground and analyzed for C, N, and lignin content. We will measure the number and density of taproot nodules of leguminous species to index N-fixation.
Crop yield and quality
Immediately before harvest, the number of plants, reproductive tillers, and seeds produced will be measured by clipping all plants in four randomly located 0.50-m2 quadrats/plot. Grain nitrogen concentration will be determined by calibrated NIRS. At Fort Ellis, grain test weight will be determined by AOAC (1999) procedures. Cover and forage crop production will be estimated by a similar sampling method before termination. Biomass samples will be weighed, oven dried at 55°C, ground to pass a 1-mm sieve, and analyzed for total N, NDF, and ADF concentrations.
Livestock performance will be evaluated on cooperator farms and the cover crop study at Fort Ellis primarily in terms of carrying capacity (sheep, cattle, hogs, or poultry days/acre) and body weight gain. Although our primary focus is soil health, we will have carcass quality characteristics from our Fort Ellis project for lambs on our in-field finishing study.
The experimental design on cooperators’ farms is a completely random design with two treatments repeated over three years. The Fort Ellis site is a complete randomized block design repeated over three years. Data from each location will be analyzed with appropriate analyses of variance, and the three-year data set will be analyzed with repeated measures analysis of variance to test for cumulative effects across years. Response variables will be compared across treatments at each location using an appropriate repeated measures ANOVA. For the soil microbes, β-diversity (differences in composition and relative abundances between samples) will be assessed using a combination of Bray-Curtis and Unifraq (phylodiversity), with significant differences between treatments assessed with ANOSIM and PERMANOVA.
Objectives 2 and 3 are covered under Scholarly Publications and Educational Materials and Producer and Ag Professional Educational Activities, respectively.
The data we collect in this study will be the foundation for future economic and energy assessment. Data will be analyzed using system enterprise budgets and scenario analyses using repeated simulation. We hope this will be funded in a continuation of this WSARE proposal.
Producer & Ag Professional Educational Activities:
Our project will demonstrate and disseminate not only results but we will also promote our integrated approach and develop best management practices. Outreach materials and activities will be developed collaboratively through a partnership between the NCAT and MSU extension. Both entities have excellent credentials in effective outreach. Montana State University Extension has staff in 58 county and reservation offices and more than 100 years of effective agricultural outreach. NCAT manages the USDA ATTRA Project which has provided nationwide outreach and education on sustainable agriculture topics for over 28 years.
Research results, along with demonstrations of our integrated approach, will be used to 1) develop a transformative extension program that will enhance the sustainability of agricultural production in a variety of production systems and 2) provide students, agricultural professionals, and rural teachers with classroom and research opportunities to learn about sustainable practices.
Our partnership between NCAT and MSU personnel will deliver the programs via field days, fliers, pamphlets, presentations, cooperator on farm workshops, festivals, Animal and Range Sciences Department newsletters, scientific and ag professional presentations, email newsletters, Facebook, YouTube videos, stakeholder meetings, news releases, popular press articles, web-based outlets, NRCS Soil Health Workshops, and WSARE educational programs. We will develop training opportunities and educational resources about sustainable integrated crop-livestock practices for students and rural teachers. We will also formally evaluate the impacts of our programs via surveys and other post-programming assessments. These programs will be conducted in conjunction with our on-going activities aimed at assessing the agronomic, ecological, economic, and social constraints occurring during the transition to more sustainable systems. The synergisms between our current and proposed activities will allow us to provide both discipline-based and system-level information on the development of integrated organic systems in dryland organic farms and possibly irrigated organic farms as well.
Research updates, along with pictures of progress at research sites, and information about upcoming field days, will be posted on both the Montana State University Animal and Range Sciences and ATTRA Facebook pages and will be monitored and interactive with the audience. To promote audience involvement and participation, and to increase “sharing” of posts and outreach, posts on the Facebook page will be interactive (trivia questions, etc.). “How-to” YouTube videos to engage and educate producers will be available online. NCAT through its USDA supported ATTRA National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service project will contribute substantially to the development of our outreach program. In addition, results from this project will be incorporated into our ANSC 222 Livestock in Sustainable Production Systems course.
Because of our Co-PI’s strong and long-term relationships with producer groups such as Montana Stock Growers, Montana Wool Growers, Montana Grain Growers, Montana Organic Association, Montana Farmer’s Union, and Montana Farm Bureau, we can disseminate results to a large number of alternative and mainstream producers. This will have a wide-reaching statewide and regional impact. Results will also be published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at regional and national professional meetings to enhance the transfer of our project to a regional, national, and even international audience.
Scholarly Publications & Educational Materials:
At the start of the project and based in part on our previous research, our NCAT and MSU extension team members will develop extension publications, videos, photos, posters, slideshows, brochures, field days, fact sheets (electronic and video), program announcements, and web-based materials to review the concepts of integrated systems and introduce our project. Other avenues that have been productive include the Montana Science and Engineering Festival, Celebrate Agriculture, Links to College and Department Agriculture Newsletters, the ATTRA Weekly e-newsletter, and MSU classroom and field presentations by producers involved in the project.
Results for the scientific community will be published in peer reviewed journals such as Small Ruminant Research, Sheep and Goat Research Journal, Agronomy Journal, Forage and Grazing Lands, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, and Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. We will incorporate results into the previously mentioned avenues of outreach. Other methods of publication include creation of Montguides and fact sheets through Montana State University Extension and ATTRA Tip Sheets. Data will also be incorporated into online articles which will be posted on the MSU extension website, as well as an ATTRA webinar (e.g., “Who needs grazing livestock? Maybe your crops and soils do”) that will be available to producers nationwide. Additionally, information will be used in extension presentations that will be given at field days and presentations throughout the state and region. YouTube videos will be created and linked to both cooperating websites that will allow us to demonstrate our research in a user-friendly format for producers, reaching both a local and national audience.
Farmers should expect that the adoption of integrated crop–livestock systems will enhance both profitability and environmental sustainability of their farms and communities. In Montana we have found that soil microbiology is a complex aspect of sustainable agriculture that genuinely excites farmers and ranchers. Expected findings of key grazing-influenced linkages between soil microbial communities, soil health, and crop production, will likely become a hot topic in the farm media that will reflect favorably for WSARE. The participation of four producer collaborators bodes well for engagement with other producers. We will use the WSARE survey and NCAT assessment tools to measure producer adoption and producer willingness to consider enterprise-level integration of crop and livestock systems and identify obstacles impacting adoption of integrated livestock/crop systems.
In years 2–3, NCAT will assess change in knowledge, skills, and attitudes of all workshop, conference, and webinar participants through a combination of evaluation methods and tools, including surveys, standard pre-tests/post-tests, and audience response systems. Additionally in year 3, NCAT will conduct surveys or interviews with a randomly selected group of producers to assess their willingness to adopt the management practices presented to them regarding the project’s findings concerning improved soil health and crop production potential with the use of integrated crop/livestock systems. The interest and applicability of the tip sheets will be evaluated by the number of downloads from the ATTRA Website. The number of related calls on the ATTRA help line will also be monitored and summarized as an indication of the producer interest and learning on these issues.
This project will benefit stakeholders in the region by providing them with: 1) innovative approaches to reduce off farm inputs; 2) system-based recommendations for crop and livestock integrated systems; 3) alternative sources of grazing, forages, and finishing livestock for sustainable sheep and cattle production; and 4) opportunities for new types of profitable partnerships between sheep, cattle and crop producers, ultimately, developing holistic animal/crop production systems that will enhance the sustainability of enterprises in a variety of environments.
We were unable to collect data at Nathan Merrill and Kody Cator’s farm in Big Sandy, MT in 2017 due to severe drought conditions. The cover crop field that they planned to use to graze their goats on was severely drought stricken with extremely high nitrate levels which would have made the goats ill or possibly killed them if they had been allowed to graze it. We plan to collect data at their operation in 2018 and 2019.
We collected data at 13 Mile Lamb and Wool and Strike Farms in Bozeman, MT and Black Cat Farms in Boulder, CO. We are in the process of preparing collected samples for lab analysis. At 13 Mile Lamb and Wool we set up exclosures and collected data on a 2 acre squash field that was grazed with sheep. At Strike Farms we grazed sheep and collected data on a 6 acre alfalfa/grass pasture that will be cultivated for future use. At Black Cat Farms data was collected on a 1 acre spelt field that was grazed by sheep.
We completed the first year of the Feedlot on Fields data collection at Fort Ellis. Over a two month period we finished weaned lambs on wheat stubble fields. We fed either alfalfa or barley based pellets to the lambs and compared them to lambs finished in a confinement setting offered the same diets. We collected soil samples from these fields and will compare the soil differences in the fields the lambs were finished on with wheat stubble fields maintained under conventional means and tillage practices.
We provided education on our project to farmers, ranchers, students and agricultural professionals through presentations, class lectures and a field day presentation.
Educational & Outreach Activities
I presented our research plan and current activities to the Livestock in Sustainable Systems class at MSU which has about 130 students. Format was powerpoint presentation with quiz questions and notes for students.
I gave an update on the research activities ongoing at the Fort Ellis Research Station at a Field Day in June 2017 at Fort Ellis in Bozeman. About 75 participants which included farmers and ranchers as well as agricultural professionals. I provided a handout that summarized my presentation to participants.
I talked about our Fort Ellis “Feedlot on Fields” project in an eOrganic Webinar that focused on integrating livestock into organic systems.
I gave a presentation on our project at the MSU Sheep Advisory committee meeting on Oct. 2, 2017.