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

Progress 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.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • 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.

These results are still in the process of data analysis but 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.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We provided education on our project to farmers, ranchers, students and agricultural professionals through presentations, posters, social media posts, news articles, class lectures, seminars, field day presentations, workshops, fact sheets, tip sheets, webinars, videos, and podcasts.

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
8 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
13 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
11 11 educational videos were created based on our research and workshops.

Participation Summary

105 Farmers
55 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

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)

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

Tip sheets and fact sheets were handed out to all workshop attendees and also made available as free downloads on NCAT’s ATTRA website. Downloads for the tip sheets were 196, 67, and 65, 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.

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. Facebook Post project lab work

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 with Crops Project: Food-Safety Considerations (

2. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Why Not Use the Field as a Feedlot? (

3. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Livestock Can Be Integrated into Veggies Too (

4. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Electric Fences. Sheep In and Predators Out (

5. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Livestock and Vegetables. A Close Fit. (

6. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Infiltration. Monitoring Soil Health (

7. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: History of Montana State University Project (

8. Livestock Integration with Crops Project: Terminating Cover Crops. Sheep Can Do It! (

9. Integrating Livestock with Crops Project: Historical Perspective (

2 videos are still being edited but will be available for viewing in the very near future.

Learning Outcomes

77 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
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.

Project Outcomes

16 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
26 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project, focusing on integration of livestock into Montana vegetable and field cropping systems, has an immense potential impact on Montana agricultural producers. Due to its broad scope, it can impact sheep, goat, and cattle producers; grain farmers; specialty crop farmers; vegetable farmers; and orchard producers. This includes nearly every phase of agricultural production in the state. Not only does it provide livestock producers with a heretofore under-utilized grazing resource (cover crops and crop residual), but it also provides crop farmers with a potential source of income to offset cover crop seeding costs and a tillage or herbicide substitute for cover crop termination and weed control. For farmers who choose to own the livestock that they employ in their fields, this added enterprise adds to the diversity of their farm income stream.

The project also has the potential to vastly improve agricultural soil health and thereby: (1) sequester carbon, mitigating climate change; (2) reduce erosion and runoff of rainfall; (3) reduce saline seep; (4) increase moisture infiltration, improving crop yields; and (4) increase the efficiency of nutrient cycling, reducing farm inputs of fertilizer. All of these benefits add both monetary and ecosystem value to the farm landscape.

Further, the addition of another significant endeavor on a large scale will bring more income to rural communities and increase jobs that serve the local livestock enterprise. Schools and local businesses will feel this positive impact.

In summary, livestock integration into the vast number of crop acres present in Montana represents a potential boon to the top industry in the state. This potential is hardly realized. Hopefully, this project, and others in the future like it, will provide valuable education toward capturing this potential.

Percentage of Workshop Attendees That Learned the Benefits of Livestock Integration:











Percentage of Attendees Who Feel They Understand Food and Safety Concerns Associated with Livestock Integration as a Result of this Workshop:











Success stories:

Many attendees expressed their gratitude for the content and expertise exhibited in the two workshops. A diversified organic crop farmer in North Central Montana stated when asked why he is experimenting with sheep integration and cover crops, “I feel those two components, the noxious weeds and the long-term fertility implications…I don’t know how else to solve them (but with livestock integration).” As this project continues next year, we hope to expand producer awareness and comprehension of the value of livestock in all of Montana’s diverse cropping systems.

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.