The Impacts of Integrating Livestock into Cropping Systems on Soil Health and Crop Production

Final report for SW17-080

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $249,502.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Devon Ragen
Montana State University
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Project Information


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.

Project Objectives:

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.


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  • Trestin Benson (Researcher)



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.

Our hypothesis is that livestock grazing activity will have a positive effect on soil biology by increasing soil nutrients and soil microbial diversity therefore increasing the productivity of the fields. 

Materials and methods:

Objective 1

Project sites

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-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. A subsample of each soil core 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.

Soil compaction

Trestin Benson (Graduate student) and Devon Ragen (Research Associate) 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

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.

Statistical analysis

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.

Objective 4

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.

Producer Adoption:

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.

Research results and discussion:

Year 1:

Integrating Livestock with Vegetable Cropping Systems:

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.

Soil data and whole plant samples were collected prior to grazing at each site. Biomass samples were collected before and after grazing at each site. Six grazing exclosures were set up in each location for the duration of the grazing period.  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 grazing exclosures and collected data on a 2-acre squash residue field that was grazed with sheep. Grazing occurred 9/26/2017-2/10/2018. Pre-graze data was collected 9/26/2017. At Strike Farms we grazed sheep and collected data on a 6-acre alfalfa/grass pasture that will be cultivated for future use. Grazing occurred from 8/7/2017 – 8/16/2017. Pre-graze data was collected 8/7/2017. At Black Cat Farms data was collected on a 1 acre spelt residue field that was grazed by sheep.  Grazing occurred from 11/10/2017-2/10/2018. Pre-graze data was collected 9/26/2017.

Feedlot on Fields:

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. 

Year 2:

Integrating Livestock with Vegetable Cropping Systems:

Big Sandy Farmers/cooperators, Nathan Merrill and Kody Cator, unfortunately, decided to not take part in our project and therefore we will not be conducting any research at their farm. Because we still have three active cooperators we will not be adding an additional project site to take their place but will focus our efforts and data collection on our three other research sites.

Soil data and whole plant samples were collected prior to grazing at each of our three research sites. Biomass samples were collected before and after grazing at each site. Six grazing exclosures were set up in each location for the duration of the grazing period.  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 but have included some tables with raw data, of preliminary bulk density values and soil nutrient values for each location.

For Year 2 of our project we grazed sheep and collected data on a 3-acre oat and pea cover crop at Strike Farms. We also collected data, prior to harvest, on the 6-acre field (our Year 1 data collection field) that was previously alfalfa/grass pasture and converted to a mixture of herb and vegetable crops.  Grazing with sheep on the Year 2 field occurred 6/25/2018 -7/5/2018. Pre-graze samples were collected 6/25/2018, and harvest samples were collected 7/25/2018.

At Black Cat Farms we collected data on 6 acres of a mixture of eggplant, pepper, purple potato, tomatillo and grass. Black Cat Farms will over-winter sheep on this field until the spring, then we will collect post-grazing samples. Data was also collected prior to harvest on 1 acre that was previously a spelt field (our data collection field for Year 1). Sheep grazing began November 10th and will continue into the spring. Pre-graze and harvest data were collected 9/18/2018.

At 13 Mile Lamb and Wool, due to a miscommunication, the cooperator had sheep graze our data collection field (without grazing exclosures in place) prior to pre-graze sampling. However, we were still able to collect data on 10/4/2018 on the 2-acre squash field that was grazed in 2017 and we are able to leave our grazing enclosures intact till the spring of 2019 while sheep over-winter on this field. We will collect post-graze data on the field in the spring. 

A year into the project, we saw an increase in bulk density within the grazed sampling areas from 2017 to 2018 at each location (Tables 1 & 2). Bulk density is an indicator of soil compaction; as bulk density increases there is evidence that the soil has become more compact. However, please keep in mind that this is raw data that has not been statistically analyzed to reveal significant differences. We also saw very little change in the soil analysis when comparing grazed and non-grazed sampling areas at all locations in 2017 and 2018, but again this is raw data that has not been statistically analyzed.

Feedlot on Fields:

Of our 45 research plots at the Fort Ellis Research Station, 18 of these plots each year are put into winter wheat and further divided into either conventionally treated plots (herbicide use permitted), organic plots managed using tillage, or organic plots managed using livestock grazing. The second year of the Feedlot on Fields data collection was completed at Fort Ellis during September and October. Over the two-month period we again finished weaned lambs on the Grazed-organic wheat stubble plots. 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. GrowSafe feeders were used in the confinement pens to measure feed intake on an individual lamb basis. Soil samples were collected in all wheat stubble fields to determine if differing management has an effect on soil health, compaction and soil microbial communities.  We are still in the process of soil microbial extraction for the first two years of data collection.

Year 3:

Integrating Livestock with Vegetable Cropping Systems:

Soil data and whole plant samples were collected prior to grazing at each of our three research sites. Biomass samples were collected before and after grazing at each site. Six grazing exclosures were set up in each location for the duration of the grazing period. 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 but have included some tables with raw data, of preliminary bulk density values and soil nutrient values for each location.

Due to unforeseen circumstances Strike Farms decided to put the farm up for sale. Because of this no new crops were planted for the grazing season. We were still fortunately able to graze last year’s pea and oat cover crop that had previously been grazed. Soil samples were collected prior to grazing and will be collected again in March. Grazing occurred 6/14/2019 -6/23/2019. Soil and biomass samples were collected prior to grazing.

Black Cat Farms planted a harvest crop of black garbanzo beans and assorted dry beans in the third year of the project. No harvest data was collected, as the crops were harvested before sampling was able to occur. Soil samples were collected 09/15/2019. After harvest Black Cat Farms planted a forage radish, buckwheat oats and peas cover crop. This cover crop will be grazed by their flock of sheep from December 2019 to March 2020. Soil sand biomass samples will be collected once again in March of 2020.

At 13 Mile Lamb and Wool sheep were grazed from 11/10/2019-11/23/2019 on a 2-acre squash field. Sheep will be placed back on the field over the winter to graze the residual more, as well as the mixture of hairy vetch and clover cover crop. Soil and biomass samples were collected prior to grazing and will be collected again in March of 2020.

Soil microbial diversity (Shannon’s index and CHAO1) increased from 2017 to 2018, but we saw no differences in soil microbial diversity between the grazed and ungrazed treatments in 2018. Soil bulk density (a measure of soil compaction) increased at Strike and Black Cat Farms from 2017-2019. There was no difference in soil bulk density between grazed and ungrazed at any of the sites from 2017-2019. Soil percent organic matter and nitrogen was not different between the grazed and ungrazed treatments between 2017 and 2018. There was a decrease in percent organic matter and nitrogen at Strike Farms between from 2017 to 2018. There was also a decrease in percent organic matter at Black Cat Farms from 2017 to 2018.


While no differences were found between treatments at all three farms, it is important to consider a few things. First, soil can take decades to transition to a new, stable microbial community(Ishaq et al., 2020). Three years may not be enough time to detect changes to soil microbial communities as impacted from changes in management. The effects of environment may also play a much larger role in changes to the soil microbial communities than management changes, making it very difficult to detect any differences between treatments. Lastly, soil at each site was treated equally except for the grazed and ungrazed treatments, the heterogeneity of the soil may override any management changes. More samples and time may be required to truly detect such small differences in soil microbial communities.

Results tables for Integrating Livestock with Vegetable Farming

Feedlot on Fields:

The third and last year of the Feedlot on Fields data collection was completed at Fort Ellis during September and October. Over the two-month period we again finished weaned lambs on the Grazed-organic wheat stubble plots. 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. GrowSafe feeders were used in the confinement pens to measure feed intake on an individual lamb basis. Soil samples were collected in all wheat stubble fields to determine if differing management has an effect on soil health, compaction and soil microbial communities. 

We have completed the soil DNA microbial extraction process for all three years of data and will have final conclusions and discussion based on our data in the near future.  Our preliminary results indicate a broader diversity of microbes in grazed and tilled rather than conventional sites. The unclassified Bradyrhizobiaceae and Pseudomonas species (part of rhizosphere) had a higher probability of being present in grazed and tilled plots vs. conventional fields. Bradyrhizobiaceae functions include photosynthesis, nitrification, formation of plant root organs that perform nitrogen fixation. Pseudomonas functions include growth-promoting rhizobacteria which can protect plants from pathogenic attacks by promoting plant defenses, or systemic resistance. We found no difference in soil penetration resistance (influences plant root growth, water movement) among treatments.

For animal performance we found that ADG and ending BW were higher for lambs finished in fields compared to confinement-finished lambs. Cost of gain was highest for field finished lambs consuming the alfalfa diet; however, these lambs also applied approximately 60% more manure to each wheat stubble field than field finished lambs consuming the barley diet.

When comparing soil samples from the tilled organic, grazed organic (lambs fed barley or alfalfa diet) and conventional plots we found no differences in soil nutrients except for potassium and sulfur. For K, the conventional treatment had the highest levels and the grazed alfalfa had the lowest. For S, conventional was also the highest with tilled the lowest. These results tell us that systems that integrate livestock have very similar soil nutrient values but without the added inputs of fertilizers or herbicides. 

Research conclusions:

Effects of integrating livestock into small scale vegetable farming systems:


Tables and Charts for livestock and vegetable systems

Soil Bulk Density
There was no significant difference in bulk density measurements between the grazed and ungrazed treatments at Black Cat (P = 1.00), 13 Mile Lamb and Wool (P = 0.98), and Strike Farms (P = 1.00; Fig. 2a-2c).

Soil Nutrients
From 2017-2018 Strike Farms increased in Nitrate-N in both the grazed and un-grazed sampling areas (P< .01). There was no significant difference between Nitrate-N (ppm) when comparing grazed and un-grazed sampling areas within any year from 2017-2018. 13 Mile Lamb and Wool NH4+ (mg/kg) increased from 2017 to 2018 (P< .01), and then decreased from 2018-2019(P< .01). Nitrate-N ppm decreased from 2018 to 2019 (P< .01) at Black Cat Farms, but there was no significant difference between treatments (Table 2a – 2c).

Soil Microbial Diversity
Soil microbial ASV profiles clustered by location (ANOSIM Global R= 0.87, P(perm)=0.001; PERMANOVA F=9.4, P=0.001; Fig. Farm plot), this explained 24.7 % of the total variation observed. While all farms were very distinct from one another, Black Cat was less similar to either 13 Mile (R=0.952) or Strike (R=0.926) than these later farms were to one another (R=0.784). Samples also exhibited farm × year effects (R=0.739, P=0.001; F=6.2887, P=0.001; Fig. 3b., 12.4 % of total variation). Weak year effects were detected by ANOSIM between 2020 and either 2017 (R=0.237, P=0.001) or 2018 (R=0.229 P=0.001) and between 2019 and 2017 (R=0.275, P=0.001) and 2018 (R=0.285, P=0.001). No differences were seen overall between 2020 and 2019 or 2018 and 2017. No effects were detected for treatment, farm × treatment, or farm × year × treatment (P> 0.05). Consistently, no ASV was found to differ with treatment.


Soil chemistry, biology, and physical properties are all invaluable to the overall function of soil, as they drive the soil’s ability to hold water, sustain plant life and assist in resisting disturbance (Doran, 1999; Parr et al., 1992). Due to this, we sought to evaluate nutrient cycling, microbial communities, and compaction in response to grazed versus un-grazed vegetable cropping systems and understand the interaction between soil biology, nutrient cycling, and livestock when integrated into a variety of vegetable production systems.

Integrating livestock into each of the farms studied had no significant effect on bulk density when comparing the grazed and un-grazed sampling areas across all three years of the study (2017-2020). This finding is similar to other studies involving integrated livestock operations. In 2011, Liebig et al. (2011) found that at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory southern research station in Mandan, SD soil infiltration rates (another measurement of soil compaction) were not significantly different among the livestock integrated annual cropping sequence and residue management that was hayed or left in place (CONTROL). Liebig et al. (2011) indicated that infiltration and compaction issues were not of concern when livestock were integrated into winter grazing systems due to the soil being frozen during grazing. Additionally, it was noted that soil in the Great Plains experience freeze and thaw cycles which mitigate any compacted areas created during grazing (Liebig et al., 2011).

On the contrary, other studies have indicated that integrating livestock into farming systems may have a negative effect on soil bulk density. When studying three farm locations in the Southern Great Plains, Krenzer et al. (1989) reported that cattle increased soil bulk density by as much as 16% when the livestock were allowed to graze red winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) during the fall and winter, following summer harvest (Krenzer et al., 1989). Soil compaction may be influenced by soil type, grazing level, precipitation, and location, so all variables must be taken into consideration when developing a grazing plan (Mapfumo et al., 1999).

By understanding the interaction between livestock grazing and soil nutrient cycles we can improve the knowledge base of how integrated livestock grazing impacts soil microbial communities and plant growth, as microbes are essential to nutrient cycling and nutrient cycling is essential for plant growth (Bhowmik et al., 2017; Wang et al., 2016). From 2017-2018 Strike Farms significantly increased in Nitrate-N (ppm) in both the grazed and ungrazed sampling areas. NH4+ (mg/kg) increased from 2017 to 2018 at 13 Mile Lamb and Wool and then decreased from 2018-2019 (Table 3.1a –c). Sheep grazing during fallow periods in wheat fields for weed control had some impact on NH4+ and NO3- when compared to tillage and herbicide weed management during a study conducted in SW Montana (Sainju et al., 2010). NH4+ and NO3- may increase with livestock grazing in grasslands (Wang et al., 2016). On the contrary, during our study Nitrate-N ppm decreased from 2018 to 2019 at Black Cat Farms (Table 3.1a-c). While some soil nutrients changed throughout the years of the study, no soil nutrients measured were affected by management type (grazed or un-grazed). Taking into consideration that each study site was tilled after grazing had occurred, tilling the soil may have made it difficult to observe any differences between treatments and only made it possible to detect differences between years.

While some research has explored the impacts that livestock grazing have on soil microbial diversity, little has been studied in terms of how integrated livestock grazing impacts soil microbial communities, specifically in horticulture systems (Chillo et al., 2017; Yang et al., 2013). Our study, which focused on changes in soil microbial diversity in livestock integrated systems, indicated that significant differences in soil microbial diversity were detected between farm locations, but no significant effects were detected for treatment, farm × treatment, and farm × year × treatment. Due to the size of the sampling areas (1-m2), the sampling plots may not have been large enough to distinguish between the effects of the treatment and environmental effects on the soil microbial communities. Such environmental effects known to impact soil microbial communities may include precipitation, climate, and other soil physical factors (Ishaq et al., 2017; Kaiser et al., 2016). Since soil microbial communities are affected by changes in soil and plant properties, it is understandable why the soil microbial communities are clustered by farm location, as each farm location had different soil properties (Table 3.1a-c; Fig. 3.1a).

It has been shown that plant composition may positively correlate with beta diversity, even after removing environmental factors, as was reported in a study conducted in temperate grasslands across four continents (Prober et al., 2014). With this understanding, it is possible that the plant composition at each of the farm locations had a larger effect on soil microbial diversity than the management of the farms. Another study in Eastern Australia indicated that any effects livestock grazing had on soil microbial community diversity were also indirectly impacted by changes in plant and litter cover and soil pH and N levels, so it may also be difficult to parse out any effects livestock grazing may have on soil microbial communities within the sampling sites as there are many other factors involved (Eldridge et al., 2019).

Soil microbes are quite mobile, and can move by active, passive and large organism facilitated transport. Passive movement occurs by water flow and wind and can move bacteria up to 400 mm with water flow and possibly up to 5,000 km with wind. Active movement allows microbes to move through the soil at much shorter distances than passive movement where they can move up to 7mm with the presence of water and the use of flagellates. Large organism facilitated transport occurs with the assistance of organisms such as earthworms, nematodes and protozoa where microbes can be transported throughout the soil while attached to these organisms (Yang and Dirk van Elsas, 2018). It is also possible that due to the small size of the sampling locations and the proximity of the grazed and ungrazed sampling locations that the microbial communities could have traveled between the areas. Along with environmental factors, soil microbial movement, and the size of the sampling areas, all the grazing exclosures were removed at the end of the grazing season to allow the landowners to till the study sites in preparation for seeding. The action of tilling may have also moved soil microbial communities around the study sites.


Results from this study indicate that integrating livestock into small scale vegetable farming systems in the Northern Great Plains does not have a negative impact on soil health measurements, including bulk density, soil nutrients and soil microbial communities. Further research utilizing larger sampling areas may assist in parsing out the environmental factors that play a large role in changes to soil microbial communities and could give a better understanding of the role livestock grazing plays on these communities. While no consistent differences in soil nutrients, bulk density and soil microbial diversity were found due to the treatments, grazing did not negatively impact any of the soil measurements among the years studied (2017-2020).
With the lack of research looking at the impacts of livestock integrated systems on small scale vegetable farms, there is a need for a better understanding of the relationship between livestock grazing of farming systems and soil health. Results from this study may help to demonstrate to farmers and livestock operators the importance of an integrated approach, for those that already practice this approach, they will have the affirmation that what they are exercising is feasible and purposeful and also become the starting point for further research into a little studied topic.

Literature Cited:

Bhowmik A., A.M. Fortuna, L.J. Cihacek, P.M. Carr and C.G. Cogger, 2017. Potential carbon sequestration and nitrogen in long-term organic management systems. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 32:498-510. doi:3443/10.1017/S1742170516000429

Chillo V., R.A. Ojeda, V. Capmourteres and M. Anand, 2017. Functional diversity loss with increasing livestock grazing intensity in drylands: the mechanisms and their consequences depend on the taxa. Journal of Applied Ecology, 54: 986-996. doi: 0.1111/1365-2664.12775

Doran et al., 1999. Chapter 2: Determinants of Soil Quality and Health. Soil Quality and Soil Erosion. 1st Edition. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Eldridge D.J., S.K. Travers, J. Val, J. Wang, H. Liu, B.K. Singh, and M. Delgado-Baquerizo, 2020. Grazing Regulates the Spatial Heterogeneity of Soil Microbial Communities Within Ecological Networks. Ecosystems, 23: 932-942. doi: 10.1007/s10021-019-00448-9

Ishaq S.L., S.P. Johnson, Z.J. Miller, E.A. Lehnhoff, S. Olivo, C.J Yeoman., and F.D. Menalled, 2017. Impact of Cropping Systems, Soil Inoculum, and Plant Species Identity on Soil Bacterial Community Structure. Microbial Ecology, 73:417-434. doi: 10.1007/s00248-016-0861-2.

Kaiser K. , B. Wemheuer , V.Korolkow, F. Wemheuer, H.Nacke, I. Schöning, M. Schrumpf, and R. Daniel, 2016. Driving forces of soil bacterial community structure, diversity, and function in temperate grasslands and forests. Scientific Reports, 6 :1-12. doi:10.1038/srep33696

Krenzer, Jr. E.G., C.F. Chee, and J.F. Stone. 1989. Effects of Animal Traffic on Soil Compaction in Wheat Pastures. Journal of Production Agriculture, 2:246-249.

Liebig, M.A., D.L. Tanaka, S.I. Kronberg, E.J. Scholljegerdes and J.F. Karn, 2011. Soil Hydrological Attributes of an Integrated Crop-Livestock Agroecosystem: Increased Adaptation through Resistance to Soil Change. Applied and Environmental Soil Science, 2011:1-6. doi:10.1155/2011/464827

Mapfumo E., D.S. Chanasyk, M.A. Naeth and V.S. Baron, 1999. Soil compaction under grazing of annual and perennial forages.Canada Journl of Soil Science, 79:191-199.

Parr, J.F., R.I.,Papendick, S.B., Hornick and R.E. Meyer, 1992. Soil quality: Attributes and relationship to alternative and sustainable agriculture. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 7:5-10. doi:10.1017/S0889189300004367

Prober S.M., J.W. Leff, S.T. Bates, E.T. Borer, J. Fim, W.S. Harpole, E.M. Lind, E.W. Seabloom, P.B. Adler, J.D. Bakker, E.E. Cleland, N.M. DeCrappeo, E. DeLorenze, N. Hagenah, Y. Hautier, K.S. Hofmockel, K.P. Kirkman, J.M.H. Knops, K. J. La Pierre, A.S. MacDougall, R.L. McCulley, C.E. Mitchell, A.C. Risch, M.Schuetz, C.J. Stevens, R.J. Williams, and N. Fierer, 2014. Plant diversity predicts beta but not alpha diversity of soil microbes across grasslands worldwide. Ecology Letters, 1-10. doi: 10.1111/ele.12381

Sainju U.M., A.W. Lenssen, H.B. Goosey, E. Snyder and P.G. Hatfield, 2010. Dryland Soil Carbon and Nitrogen Influenced by Sheep Grazing in the Wheat-Fallow System. Agronomy Journal, 102:1553-1561. doi: 10.2134/agronj2010.0216

Wang X., McConkey B.G., VandenBygaart A.J., Fan J., Iwaasa A., and Schellenberg M., 2016. Grazing improves C and N cycling in the Norther Great Plains: a meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 6:1-9. doi: 10.1038/srep33190

Yang P. and J. Dirk van Elsas, 2018. Mechanisms and ecological implications of the movement of bacteria in soil. Applied Soil ecology, 129: 112-120. doi:/10.1016/j.apsoil.2018.04.014

Yang, Y., L. Wu,Q. Lin,M. Yuan, D. Xu, H. Yu, ... & Zhou, J, 2013. Responses of the functional structure of soil microbial community to livestock grazing in the Tibetan alpine grassland. Global Change Biology, 19(2), 637-648.doi: 10.1111/gcb.12065

Feedlot on Fields:

Link to published journal article with results tables here:


In North America, confinement-finished lamb-meat production promotes rapid growth and is based on diets containing high levels of grain concentrates. The majority of research has reported that lambs grow faster on concentrate-based diets than on forage-based diets (1-10) and ad libitum consumption of concentrates results in fatter lambs compared to those fed forage diets when the lambs are slaughtered at a constant final weight (2, 11, 12). However, there is a rapidly increasing demand for grass-fed or organically produced livestock (13) and in the U.S. retail sales of pasture-finished beef have risen from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016 (14).

A year × location interaction was detected for ending BW, ADG, and DMI; therefore results are presented by year. In yr 1, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.29) for all response variables (Table 2). There was also no effect of location (p> 0.42) on ending BW, ADG, DMI, gain to feed, and cost of gain. Cost of gain and DMI were greater for CALF and FALF than for CBAR and FBAR feed treatments (p < 0.01) across all years. Gain to feed ratio was greater for CBAR and FBAR than CALF and FALF (0.15, 0.14, 0.12, and 0.13 G:F respectively; p = 0.01).

In yr 2, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.32) for all response variables (Table 3). Location had an effect on ending BW and ADG, and both FALF and FBAR were greater than CALF and CBAR (p< 0.01). Dry matter intake, gain to feed ratio, and cost of gain had both a location and feed effect and differed among all treatments (p < 0.01; Table 3).

In yr 3, there was a location × feed interaction for ending BW and ADG (p=0.09 and p=0.08, respectively) (Table 4). Ending BW and ADG were greater for both FALF and FBAR than CALF and CBAR (p< 0.01). Feed had an effect on DMI and was greater for FALF and CALF which were similar (p= 0.03). This difference in DMI was expected as it has been reported that the decrease in DMI as a result of feeding higher proportion of concentrate can be attributed to the regulatory effect of dietary energy intake. Generally, animals eat food mainly to satisfy their desire for energy(15).Gain to feed did not differ among treatments (p=0.53). Cost of gain had both a location and feed effect and was highest for CALF and FALF ($4.15/kg and $3.72/kg, respectively; p< 0.01) than CBAR and FBAR with FBAR having the lowest cost of gain ($2.75/kg; p< 0.01). Even though the cost of gain was greater for alfalfa fed lambs, a survey conducted by Ripoll et al. (16) reported that 70.4% of consumers surveyed believe that grass-fed lamb is better and may be willing to pay a premium price for what they perceive as a “higher-quality product”. Also, Jacques et al.(17)concluded that using forage finishing systems may improve processing efficiency by reducing the amount of external fat to be removed by preventing excessively fat carcasses from lambs slaughtered. However, in our study there was no difference in back fat thickness among treatments (p≤0.33; Tables 5 and 6).

In yr 2 and 3, both field treatments had greater ending BW and ADG than the confinement treatments. In yr 1, extreme weather conditions (temperatures down to -29°C for ~ 1 week) may have affected animals in the field and had an impact on animal performance. Our results are in agreement with those of Phillips et al. (18) who reported that lambs can be adequately finished on a forage-based diet (alfalfa or kenaf) and doing so does not adversely affect performance or feed intake. McClure et al. (7) and Aurosseau et al. (19)also determined that finishing lambs on high-quality forages can yield similar ADG to those achieved in confinement feeding a concentrate diet while producing comparable carcasses.

A year × location and a year × location × feed interaction was detected for dressing percentage; therefore, results are presented by year. In yr 1, there was no interaction between location and feed (p> 0.09) for all response variables (Table 5). Dressing percent differed by location but not feed; dressing percent was greater for FALF and FBAR than for CALF and CBAR (51.92, 52.85, 49.18, and 46.45% respectively; p< 0.02). Ribeye area differed by location but not feed; ribeye area was greater for FALF and FBAR than for CALF and CBAR (6.03, 6.32, 5.30, and 5.33 cm2 respectively; p< 0.02; Table 5). WBSF was greater for CALF and FALF than CBAR and FBAR (3.8, 3.8, 2.7, and 3.1kg respectively; p= 0.01). All other carcass measurements did not differ among treatments. Nichols et al. (20) reported that lambs overwintered on stubble fields graded choice after confinement feeding; however, they did not investigate alternatives to confinement feeding. There was no difference in quality grade amongst treatments or years; all treatments graded in the good-plus to choice-minus range (p≤0.77; Table 5).

In yr 2, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.23) for all variables. Lambs in FALF and FBAR treatments tended to have greater leg scores and conformation than CALF and CBAR (p= 0.09). All other carcass measurements did not differ among treatments (Table 6). In our study we observed lambs in the field treatments exercising more than lambs in confinement pens; further research should be conducted to corroborate these observations and determine if exercise has an effect on leg scores and conformation. Our results are in conflict with the results of Jones et al. (21), where confinement fed lambs produced heavier carcasses and larger ribeye areas than pasture fed lambs. Our results are also in disagreement with Purchas et al. (22) who reported that WBSF values were significantly lower for M. seminembranosus in the pasture vs. grain treatments of 50 kg harvest weight lambs (4.04, 4.67 kg, respectively). In our study, location did not have an effect on tenderness but WBSF was greater for CALF and FALF than CBAR and FBAR (3.8, 3.8, 2.7, and 3.1 respectively; p= 0.01). Both Duckett et al. (23) and Realini et al. (24) reported that WBSF values were similar between forage and concentrate-fed animals. In our trial the forage-based treatment diet and grain-based treatment diet were both in concentrate-form with the same particle size. Past studies have only investigated forage-fed (in pasture or hay form) vs. concentrate-fed diets and therefore may not be comparable to our study. Forage particle size influences feed intake, saliva production, rumination, and the passage rate of feed in the rumen, as well as bio-hydrogenation pathways and fatty acid composition in lamb meat (25).

A year × feed interaction was detected for ending white blood cell counts; therefore, results are presented by year. In yr 1, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.12) for all variables (Table 7). Both hematocrit and mean cell hemoglobin concentration were affected by feed and were greater for CALF and FALF than CBAR and FBAR (p<0.08).This agrees with the results of Gawel and Grzelak (26)who reported that alfalfa concentrate may be important as a dietary supplement for animals and may improve the hematological indices of blood. Mean cell hemoglobin and red cell distribution width differed by location; FALF and FBAR were both greater than CALF and CBAR (p< 0.06). All other blood counts did not differ between treatments. The principal clinical sign of Haemonchus contortus(H. contortus) infections is anemia, due to the blood-letting activities of the parasite (27).The cool season parasite T. circumcinta (formerly Ostertagia circumcinta) interferes with absorption of nutrients and may cause weight loss and possibly diarrhea (28).

In yr 2, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.38) for all variables (Table 8). Red blood cell counts were affected by feed and were greater for CALF and FALF than CBAR and FBAR (p<0.07). The tendency for CALF to have greater white blood cell counts in yr 2, compared to other treatments, may be influenced by its abomasum T. circumcinta worm burden which was greater in CALF than all other treatments (p= 0.07).This would agree with the results of Ebrahim (29)who reported that blood samples taken from sheep infested with gastrointestinal parasites had greater white blood cell counts than sheep that were parasite-free. Kowalczuk-Vasilev et al.(30) reported that the use of iron-rich alfalfa concentrate in feeding lambs significantly improved hematological blood indices: hematocrit, hemoglobin and erythrocytes(RBC), and may be due to more efficient iron absorption. Hematocrit and mean cell hemoglobin differed by location and FALF and FBAR were greater than CALF and CBAR (p< 0.08). Variation in factors that affect the rumen bacterial community (diet composition, feed types, feeding strategy) can have a robust effect on rumen metabolism, which can impact both productivity and health of ruminants (31).Hemoglobin and mean cell hemoglobin concentration had an effect of both location and feed therefore they differed between all treatments (p< 0.06). All other blood counts did not differ between treatments (Table 8).

A year × location and year × feed interaction was detected for H. contortus worm counts along with a year × feed × location interaction for T. circumcinta worm counts, Nematodirus worm counts and small intestine total worm counts, therefore, results are presented by year (p<0.01). In yr 1, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.72) for all variables. Ending Trichostrongyle egg counts differed at p< 0.05. Ending Nematodirus spp. egg counts did not differ between treatments, although there was a tendency (p = 0.11) for CALF and FALF to be greater than CBAR and FBAR (Table 9).

In yr 1, there was an interaction between location and feed for small intestine total worm count (p< 0.01). FALF had a greater small intestine total worm count than all other treatments, CBAR was intermediate, and CALF and FBAR had the lowest counts (176, 18, 2, 0 small intestine worm count; p=0.01).An interaction between location and feed was also present for Nematodirus worm counts (p< 0.01). FALF was greater (p< 0.03) than all other treatments, CBAR was intermediate and differed from all other treatments (p=0.03) and FBAR and CALF were the lowest (p=1.00). All other worm burdens in the abomasum and first meter of the small intestine did not differ among treatments (Table 10).

In yr 2, there were no interactions between location and feed (p> 0.24) for all parasite variables. Ending Trichostrongyle type egg counts did not differ between all treatments (Table 11). Ending Nematodirus spp. egg counts were affected by location and feed and were greater for FALF and CALF (20.62 and 9.99 EPG respectively; p> 0.30), however CALF did not differ from FBAR (5.60 EPG; p> 0.44), and CBAR was lowest and differed from all other treatments (0.52 EPG; p< 0.03). It is unknown why CBAR had the lowest EPG in yr 2 but there was a tendency for both barley treatment groups to have lower EPG than the field treatments. It is widely accepted that a high grain diet causes a drop in ruminal pH and may cause drastic shifts in the rumen microbial community(32-35). Ruminal bacterial and protozoal populations increase or decrease in response to pH changes (33), however, the effect of pH on internal parasites has not been studied. It is possible that a lamb’s rumen environment is less favorable to internal parasites while consuming a high grain (barley) diet and thus we see lower EPG in these lambs; more research is needed to investigate this relationship.

In yr 2, there were no interactions (p> 0.11) between location and feed for all parasite variables. Abomasum H. contortus worm burden was greater in CALF than all other treatments (p= 0.07). All other worm burdens in the abomasum and first meter of the small intestine did not differ among treatments (Table 12). Marley et al. (36) determined that legume forages have the potential to contribute to the control of abomasal but not small intestine nematode parasites in finishing lamb systems. This is in contrast to our results where alfalfa-fed lambs in confinement had greater abomasum T. circumcinta worm counts than other treatments.

Parasite results are in conflict with those of Cai and Bai (37) who reported that gastrointestinal nematode eggs per gram (EPG) were lowest in lambs fed in confinement and highest in grazing lambs. Fecal egg counts (FEC) in our study appeared to trend with barley fed animals having lower counts than those of alfalfa fed animals. Studies have shown that the degree of parasite infestation in sheep may be reduced by some plant species (38-40). Research has focused on the effects of secondary plant compounds (e.g. condensed tannins) (41) on the reduction of parasites in the gut but the underlying mechanisms for such effects have not been determined. Overall in our study FEC worm counts taken from all slaughtered lambs were low and likely did not adversely influence the weight gains and hematocrit levels of the lambs.


Integrated crop and livestock systems as an alternative to confinement feedlot operations may increase marketing opportunities for sheep producers. While field finishing lambs with a grain- or forage-based diet, we conclude that it is possible to produce a quality lamb product without adverse effects to animal performance, carcass quality or increasing parasite burdens.

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3. Borton RJ, Loerch SC, McClure KE, Wulf DM. Characteristics of lambs fed concentrates or grazed on ryegrass to traditional or heavy slaughter weights. II. Wholesale cuts and tissue accretion1. J Anim Sci. 2005b;83(6):1345-52.
4. Demirel G, Ozpinar H, Nazli B, Keser O. Fatty acids of lamb meat from two breeds fed different forage: concentrate ratio. Meat Science. 2006;72(2):229-35.
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6. McClure KE, Solomont MB, Loerch SC. Body weight and tissue gain in lambs fed an all-concentrate diet and implanted with trenbolone acetate or grazed on alfalfa. J Anim Sci. 2000;78(5):1117-24.
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8. Murphy TA, Loerch SC, McClure KE, Solomon MB. Effects of grain or pasture finishing systems on carcass composition and tissue accretion rates of lambs. J Anim Sci. 1994;72(12):3138-44.
9. Turner KE, McClure KE, Weiss WP, Borton RJ, Foster JG. Alpha-tocopherol concentrations and case life of lamb muscle as influenced by concentrate or pasture finishing1. J Anim Sci. 2002;80(10):2513-21.
10. Notter DR, Kelly RF, McClaugherty FS. Effects of ewe breed and management system on efficiency of lamb production: II. Lamb growth, survival and carcass characteristics. J Anim Sci. 1991;69(1):22-33.
11. Fisher AV, Enser M, Richardson RI, Wood JD, Nute GR, Kurt E, et al. Fatty acid composition and eating quality of lamb types derived from four diverse breed × production systems. Meat Science. 2000;55(2):141-7.
12. Resconi VC, Campo MM, Furnols MFi, Montossi F, Sañudo C. Sensory evaluation of castrated lambs finished on different proportions of pasture and concentrate feeding systems. Meat Science. 2009;83(1):31-7.
13. Catherine Greene, Kremen A. U.S. Organic Farming in 2000-2001: Adoption of Certified Systems. USDA Economic Research Service; 2003. Report No.: AIB-780.
14. Cheung R, P M. Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture [Internet]. 2017.
15. Van Soest PJ, Ferreira AM, Hartley RD. Chemical properties of fibre in relation to nutritive quality of ammonia-treated forages. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 1984;10(2):155-64.
16. Ripoll G, Joy M, Panea B. Consumer Perception of the Quality of Lamb and Lamb Confit. Foods. 2018;7(5):80.
17. Jacques J, Berthiaume R, Cinq-Mars D. Growth performance and carcass characteristics of Dorset lambs fed different concentrates: Forage ratios or fresh grass. Small Ruminant Research. 2011;95(2):113-9.
18. Phillips WA, Reuter RR, Brown MA, Fitch JQ, Rao SR, Mayeux H. Growth and performance of lambs fed a finishing diet containing either Alfalfa or Kenaf as the roughage source. Small Ruminant Research. 2002;46(1):75-9.
19. Aurousseau B, Bauchart D, Faure X, Galot AL, Prache S, Micol D, et al. Indoor fattening of lambs raised on pasture. Part 1: Influence of stall finishing duration on lipid classes and fatty acids in the longissimus thoracis muscle. Meat Sci. 2007;76(2):241-52.
20. Nichols ME DH, Fitch GQ, and Phillips WA, editor Feedlot performance and carcass characteristics: comparison of small, medium, and large frame wethers backgrounded on wheat pasture. Proc West Sec Amer Soc Anim Sci; 1992.
21. Jones SDM, Burgess TD, Dupchak K, Pollock E. The growth performance and carcass composition of ram and ewe lambs fed on pasture or in confinement and slaughtered at similar fatness. Canadian Journal of Animal Science. 1984;64(3):631-40.
22. Purchas RW, O'Brien LE, Pendleton CM. Some effects of nutrition and castration on meat production from male Suffolk cross (Border Leicester-Romney cross) lambs. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research. 1979;22(3):375-83.
23. Duckett SK, Neel JP, Lewis RM, Fontenot JP, Clapham WM. Effects of forage species or concentrate finishing on animal performance, carcass and meat quality. J Anim Sci. 2013;91(3):1454-67.
24. Realini CE, Duckett SK, Brito GW, Dalla Rizza M, De Mattos D. Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef. Meat Science. 2004;66(3):567-77.
25. Santos-Silva J, Mendes IA, Portugal PV, Bessa RJB. Effect of particle size and soybean oil supplementation on growth performance, carcass and meat quality and fatty acid composition of intramuscular lipids of lambs. Livestock Production Science. 2004;90(2):79-88.
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of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) on haematological indices of lambs’ blood. In: E.R. G, editor. Alfalfa in human and animal nutrition. Dzierdziówka-Lublin: Association of Regional and Local Development "Progress"; 2010. p. 186-7.
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Participation Summary
3 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

76 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

10 Consultations
16 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
3 On-farm demonstrations
8 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
13 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
16 Other educational activities: 16 educational videos were created based on our research and workshops.

Participation Summary:

150 Farmers participated
55 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Presentations and Class Lectures:

Presentation of the Feedlot on Fields research at the North Central Montana Sheep Seminar at the Front Range Wool Pool Meeting in Conrad, MT to over 30 attendees (mixture of ranchers and ag professionals). (Devon Ragen)

Presentation of 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. (Devon Ragen)

Presentation on project at the MSU Sheep Advisory committee meeting on Oct. 2, 2017. (Devon Ragen)

Seminar poster session on Oct. 25, 2018 at Montana State University. (Trestin Benson)

Seminar presentation on our project at a seminar talk on Nov. 15th, 2018 at Montana State University. (Trestin Benson)

Class Lecture on research to the MSU senior level Sheep Production class on March 5, 2019. (Devon Ragen)

Poster presentation at the Montana Nutrition Conference on March 27, 2019. (Trestin Benson)

Seminar presentation for the MSU Animal and Range Science's department on April 11, 2019. (Trestin Benson)

Lecture and tour presentation of research during a Clemson University tour on June 18, 2019. (Devon Ragen)

Aero Poster Presentation October 26, 2019. (Trestin Benson)

Wool Growers Convention presentation December 6, 2019. (Trestin Benson)

Montana Organic Association Conference presentation December 7, 2019. (Trestin Benson)

Regenerating Soil with Patterns of Diversity, Hamilton, MT, January 20, 2020. (Devon Ragen) Organized by Leon Stangl.

Journal Articles:


Ragen, DL, MR Butler, JA Boles, WA Layton, TM Craig, and PG Hatfield. 2021. Evaluating the effects of finishing diet and feeding location on sheep performance, carcass characteristics, and internal parasites. J Anim Sci Technol. DOI:

In Progress:

Ragen, DL, MR Butler, PR Miller, CJ Yeoman, EC Meccage, and PG Hatfield. 2021. Soil microbial, chemical and physical properties in tilled organic, conventional no-till, and organic integrated crop–livestock systems.


Trestin Benson Master's thesis. 2021. Integrating livestock into vegetable cropping systems. Trestin's defense for her Master's research project will take place in July 2021. Upon completion her thesis will be uploaded and available at this link:

Workshops and Field Days: 

MHL Regenerative Grazing Field Day Flyer-1

Flyer WSARE workshop June 26th 2019 at Fort Ellis

July 25 2019 MSU BART Produce Flyer

Feedlot on Fields Workshop handout pdf

Integrating Livestock and Crops Workshop handout 2019

Fort Ellis Agricultural Field day. Devon 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. Devon provided a handout that summarized her presentation to the participants.  

Fort Ellis Research Station Workshop.  This first workshop was held at the Ft. Ellis Research Center on June 26, 2019. A tour of the research plots that were in this study was led  by Dr. Pat Hatfield (Head, Department of Animal and Range Sciences) Dr. Perry Miller (Professor, Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences), Devon Ragen (Research Associate), and Trestin Benson (Master’s student). Dr. Hatfield presented a historical background to the original livestock crop integration research conducted at MSU, including sawfly control with sheep on wheat fields and control of alfalfa weevil. Dr. Hatfield also commented on the present research conducted by Devon Ragen and Trestin Benson on the impacts of sheep on a five-year cropping rotation including safflower, sweet clover, wheat, lentils, and wheat. Dr. Miller presented on the crop yields and challenges of weeds in the rotation, specifically bull thistle. Devon and Trestin outlined their research on the effects of sheep on compaction, yield, nutrient cycling, and the logistics of integrating sheep into crop production through grazing and innovative feedlot on fields management. Dave Scott from NCAT demonstrated on-farm soil health monitoring that farmers can easily perform on their own landscapes. He also collaborated with Devon and Trestin on the techniques involved with setting up electric sheep nets and how to maintain them and keep them working efficiently.

This workshop was attended by eight people, including Tracey Mosley, an agriculture educator from Park County, MT, and Brent Roeder, Montana State University Sheep Specialist. The balance included a Holistic Management Inc. Certified Educator (Cliff Montagne), as well as beef and sheep producers and vegetable market gardeners.

Townes Harvest Workshop. The second workshop was held on July 25, 2019 on MSU’s Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching Farm (BART). Dr. Mac Burgess (Assistant Professor, Plant Sciences & Plant Pathology) conducted a tour for 33 attendees of the BART Farm focusing on the research on small farm systems being conducted there. Andrea Sarchet, Produce Safety Education & Outreach Coordinator from the Montana Department of Agriculture, presented on the Food Safety Modernization Act and how it affects vegetable and fruit producers when integrating livestock on their farms. This workshop had a diverse array of attendees, including Montana State University Sustainable Food and Bioenergy students, MSU faculty and agriculture educators, diverse market farmers, cattle and sheep producers (including a sheep rancher from Jordan, MT, a five-hour journey), and a Montana Department of Agriculture official. Devon and Trestin presented their research findings and then led a spirited discussion on the logistics and considerations of integrating sheep into a vegetable farm system.

Montana Highland Lamb Workshop. A related field day, co-sponsored by NCAT, One Montana, MSU Extension, and Carbon 180 was conducted at Montana Highland Lamb in Whitehall, MT. This farm is owned and operated by Dave and Jenny Scott and features high stock density, regenerative grazing. Dave demonstrated the principles of regenerative grazing, the challenges of transitioning from a conventional intensive grazing system and the overall benefits of significantly less inputs of fertilizer and irrigation while maintaining grass and lamb production. These principles and grazing techniques are precisely those needed to successfully integrate livestock into cropping systems. This field day was attended by 53 farmers and ranchers.

NCAT delivered three tip sheets for outreach to producers in the 2nd year of the project:

• Livestock as a Tool: Improving Soil Health, Boosting Crops

• Food Safety Considerations for Integrating Livestock intoProduce Cropping Systems

• No Livestock? Innovative Ways to Incorporate Them into Your Cropping System

ATTRA Tip sheets and MSU fact sheets were handed out to all workshop attendees and also made available as free downloads on NCAT’s ATTRA website. As of Feb 22nd, 2021 downloads for the ATTRA tip sheets were 912, 294, and 692, respectively. These tip sheets and fact sheets were designed as an introduction to their respective topic and to address major producer considerations when transitioning to cropping systems that include using livestock to terminate crops, grazing residual, and increasing organic matter and nutrient cycling in soils.

MSU Fact Sheets

Devon Ragen and Trestin Benson developed two MSU factsheets describing their research that were made available at the two workshops in 2019 and the webinar and Q&A Zoom Sessions in 2020 .

1.Feedlot on Fields Workshop handout pdf

  1. Integrating Livestock and Crops Workshop handout 2019

Popular Press Articles:

Ag Update: March 1, 2018.

Montana Organic Association: July 12, 2019.

Our research with photos was included in the MSU ARNR summer 2019 newsletter.  June 2019.

Article with professional photos of our project completed by the MSU News Service and included on the MSU Homepage as well as Facebook and Twitter on July 5, 2019.

The Fence Post Article: July 10, 2019.

FeedStuffs Article: July 12, 2019.

Sheep Industry News: August 2019.

Western Ag Reporter: August 1, 2019.

The Montana Conservationist: July 25, 2019.

Gallagher fencing article: October 2019. 

Webinars, Podcasts, and Social Media Posts: 

NCAT produced and aired a podcast with Roy Benjamin, who farms 20,000 organic dryland acres in Montana, entitled Linking Livestock Integration with Cash and Cover Crops. The podcast is available at October 2019.

Facebook posts on the following pages: MSU Animal and Range, MSU College of Agriculture, NCAT Rocky Mountain West, Montana State University, and MSU Sheep Extension Program page about our project with pictures and explanation.


Devon discussed the Fort Ellis “Feedlot on Fields” project in an eOrganic Webinar that focused on integrating livestock into organic systems. The webinar is available at:


  1. Integrating Livestock into Crop Production Project: Montana State University Research (
  2. Livestock Integration with Crops Project: Terminating Cover Crops. Sheep Can Do It! Part 1 (
  3. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Food-Safety Considerations (
  4. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Why Not Use the Field as a Feedlot? Part 1 (
  5. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Why Not Use the Field as a Feedlot? Part 2 (
  6. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Livestock Can Be Integrated into Veggies Too (
  7. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Electric Fences. Sheep In and Predators Out (
  8. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Livestock and Vegetables. A Close Fit. (
  9. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Infiltration. Monitoring Soil Health (
  10. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: History of Montana State University Project (
  11. Livestock Integration with Crops Project: Terminating Cover Crops. Sheep Can Do It! Part 2 (
  12. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Historical Perspective (
  13. Livestock integration with crops: A Summary (

2020 Activities

Numerous activities were conducted in 2020. All activities were advertised over NCAT’s national list serve, Facebook, and Twitter accounts and at county extension offices in MT, WY, and UT. The flyers are listed here:

Flyer WSARE workshop June 26th 2019 at Fort Ellis

July 25 2019 MSU BART Produce Flyer

Zoom session flyer livestock and field crops

Zoom session flyer livestock and veg crops

Flyer Livestock Integration with Crops Webinar Registration Link

ATTRA Webinar: Letting Livestock do the Work

Devon Ragen and her Masters student, Trestin Benson, presented their research results in an extension presentation Webinar on October 29, 2020. Devon’s power point presentation was titled, The Impacts of Integrating Livestock into Cropping systems on Soil Health and Crop Production: Feedlot on Fields. Trestin Benson’s power point presentation was titled, Impacts of Integrating Livestock into Small Scale Vegetable Farming Systems. Devon and Trestin demonstrated how integrated crop-livestock systems can provide sustainable alternatives to terminate cover crops, reduce fertilizer, and improve the water cycle. Feedlot on Fields also provided a discussion on an innovative approach to finishing lambs on cropland.

Challenges to adopting this new integration systems approach and how they were addressed were discussed. Additionally, both presentations outlined the soil health aspects of integrating sheep into field crop and specialty crop farming systems.

The presentations can be accessed here:

ATTRA Producer Videos

Due to Covid, the three producer field days that were planned in 2020 were canceled. Alternatively, we commissioned three producers who are presently integrating livestock into their cropping operations to produce videos demonstrating how they do it. The three producers are:

Korey and Wendy Fauque, Sunburst, MT. Korey and Wendy farm 4500 acres in a diversified crop farm which includes planting and grazing cover crops. They have integrated Aberdeen Angus cattle into their cropping program for three years. They direct market their beef through a newly formed grassfed beef marketing enterprise. Additionally, they own and operate Kw Insurance Inc. Korey sells crop insurance and we were pleased to share his expertise on navigating Risk Management Agency’s crop insurance regulations when integrating livestock with crops.

Tyrel Obrecht, Turner, MT. Tyrel and his family run Louie Petrie Ranch. For the last two years they have partnered with their neighbor, Jones Bros. Farm, who farm 4000 acres of grain, pulses, flax, and oilseeds. Jones Bros had no cows but wanted to try cover crops, and the Louie Petrie Ranch had no cropland: a perfect fit. Tyrel describes the way they worked out the financial relationship, fencing and stockwater infrastructure on leased land.

Leon Stangl, owns and operates Yourganic Farm in of Corvallis, MT. He grows and direct markets many specialty crops and meat produced on the farm. Leon has been integrating livestock with vegetable and cover crops for 20 years.

Together, these four videos were downloaded and viewed by over 1800 people off of the ATTRA website.

ATTRA Question and Answer Sessions

After placing these producer videos on the ATTRA website, we conducted two Question and Answer Listening Sessions using a Zoom platform. These sessions can be viewed here:

Integrating Livestock into Your Field Crops with Korey Fauque and Tyrel Obrecht.

This session highlighted the immense value that livestock can bring to soil health over time, even in dryland cropping systems. How effective livestock are at terminating cover crops and some tricks to use are discussed by Korey, Tyrel and other farmers that joined the call. What about compaction? Devon Ragen offered findings from her research at Montana State University that showed that the annual freeze-thaw cycle alleviated any compaction resulting from sheep on wheat stubble. Devon also brought forth interesting results from her Feedlot on Fields research project that compared finishing lambs on wheat stubble verses confinement.

Integrating Livestock into Your Veggie Crops with Leon Stangl

Leon went more in-depth on his philosophy of near- zero tillage using pigs to control quackgrass and using sheet composting with cattle and sheep to prepare a seedbed for the next year. His advice to specialty crop farmers and home gardeners: sell your rototiller! Your soil organic matter, aggregation, and infiltration will benefit from the sale.

The Letting Livestock Do the Work webinar, producer videos, and producer Zoom listening sessions were advertised on NCAT’s national list serve and also sent to every county ag extension agent in MT, UT, WY and ID.

The live online listening session for Integrating Livestock into Your Field Crops with Korey Fauque and Tyrel Obrecht was attended by 74 people from 29 states and two different countries.

The live online listening session for Integrating Livestock into Your Veggie Crops with Leon Stangl was attended by 127 people from 36 states with sixteen of the attendees from a country other than the United States.

Subsequent to the live Q&A sessions, they have been viewed by 340 more farmers and ranchers.

Development of the Mountain West Grazing Connection Website

In 2020, we recognized the critical need for some kind of a vehicle that connected crop farmers who had no livestock, but wanted to employ the benefits of integrating them into their operations with livestock graziers. We searched the internet and found the Midwest Grazing Exchange and decided to pattern one just like it for MT, UT, WY, and ID. It is called the Mountain West Grazing Connection and can be accessed here:

This service is offered at no charge to the users, be they crop farmers, ranchers, or folks with five acres who are looking for animals to graze them. In addition to connecting field and specialty crop farmers with graziers, it offers resources to guide participants in lease arrangements, regenerative grazing, and transportation guidelines. We are hoping that this resource will be a spark that spurs this project forward in the coming years.

The website went live on March 18, 2021. Since the site's creation 49 user accounts have been created and 13 listings. 

Page views for the website have approached and exceeded 250 views on multiple days and even surpassed 900 page views in one day in May!:


155 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
65 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

77 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Key areas taught:
  • The importance of diverse crops in dryland and irrigated cropping systems.
  • Why integrating livestock into cropping systems is beneficial.
  • Mechanics of integrating sheep and cattle into cropping systems through grazing and feedlot on fields: fencing and stock-water systems, and the logistics of moving livestock through paddocks.
  • Challenges of integrating livestock: compaction, labor, termination of crop, weed control, food-safety considerations.
  • Food and safety concerns that are associated with integrating cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs into produce-production systems.
  • Economic and soil health viability is largely determined by a whole-system approach—the application of livestock, some judicious tillage, and herbicides.
Key changes:
  • The positive effects of integrating livestock into vegetable and field crops, resulting in increased levels of nutrient cycling, water infiltration, and soil organic matter. Combined, these will decrease farm inputs, increasing net profits.

  • Food and safety concerns associated with integrating livestock into vegetable and field cropping systems.

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.