Increasing Sustainability of Livestock Production of the Northern Great Plains

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $199,736.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Douglas Landblom
North Dakota State University-Dickinson Research Extension Center

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, grass (misc. perennial), hay, sunflower, wheat
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, manure management, stockpiled forages, winter forage
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, double cropping, multiple cropping, no-till, nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, workshop, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance, budgets/cost and returns, new enterprise development, value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: chemical control, cultural control
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures


    Increasing sustainability of livestock production in the Northern Great Plains has significant implications for the agricultural sector in the focus region. Crop and beef cattle commodity prices fluctuated widely from the project’s beginning in 2012 to the end in 2015. A weather market stimulated by drought in the corn and soybean producing region of the U.S. resulted in unprecedented high corn and soybean price followed by price lows that in some instances have fallen below the cost of production. Likewise, drought in Texas, Oklahoma, and to a lesser extent in neighboring states initiated a sharp selloff of cows reducing the nation’s cattle herd that reduced the supply of feeder cattle for growing and finishing. CME fed cattle price rose to $172 and feeder cattle price escalation followed. The price explosion that began in June 2013 was completely liquidated in the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2015.

    The point of this is that as markets fluctuate widely, integrating crop and beef cattle production systems provide a degree of insulation from wide fluctuations in crop and animal inputs. Research in this project evaluated the integration of crop and beef cattle systems to identify the complementing holistic potential that may exist. Growing nutrients through crop rotation and improved cultural practices reduced the cost of production. Beef cattle grazing sequences of perennial and annual forages for longer periods of time consuming forages of higher nutritive quality complement the cropping system, soil integrity, and beef system net return.

    Paralleling the actual research was a focus on education for existing producers through farmer-cooperator projects, educational events for high school and undergraduate students, and an international connection with a Turkish short-term research scholar. Public awareness of alternative production methodologies is increasing as evidenced by agronomic programing awareness and attendance at the 2012-2015 Beef Cattle and Forage Field Days held at the Dickinson Research Extension Center. The field days are designed as workshops for a cross section of stakeholders including farmers and ranchers, research personnel, local, state and federal agency representatives who may or may not be actively raising cattle and crops, but have a focused interest in non-traditional production methods. Program topics include project data summary presentations and tours of the integrated diverse cropping and beef cattle systems being studied, and presentations and tours of producer-cooperator projects. Producer-cooperator demonstrations highlight cover crop and residue grazing, and unharvested corn grazing is being utilized to provide a lower-cost free-ranging approach to backgrounding calves after weaning.

    The field day/workshops are practical sessions focusing on soil health, and the mechanics of upgrading and attaining soil health benchmarks using the pillars of soil health, which include no-till minimum soil disturbance seeding and planting, crop diversity from cool and warm season broadleaf and grass crops, crop rotations that include cover crops, maintaining a living root in the soil, keeping residue on the soil surface, and livestock grazing whenever possible.

    Youth education at the high school level has resulted in active participation by southwestern North Dakota Vocational Agriculture students through their annual participation in the Vo-Ag High School Student Field Day. Fifty to sixty enthusiastic students have attended each year to learn about a variety of agricultural topics as well as the connectivity between the microbial world and agriculture, and how the components of water, air, soil, and sun are the foundation of food production.

    At the undergraduate college student level, Dickinson State University (DSU), Agriculture and Technical Studies undergraduate student, Lauren Pfenning, evaluated soil bulk density (BD) difference between spring wheat control, rotation crops, and native range. When BD values for native range were compared to rotation crops, BD was less except for corn (P<0.05) and tended to be less for the pea-barley intercrop (P>0.05).

    Traditional soil testing and fertilizer recommendations from the NDSU Soil Testing Laboratory are used to determine the amount of N-P-K-Cl to apply. Fertilizer recommendations are declining due to the interactive and collective effect of the soil health principles employed and crop yields are increasing steadily. Seasonal growing season nitrogen mineralization was measured during the growing season from June through October 2015. Field plots within each rotation crop were established and affixed with 8”x24” irrigation pipes that were pushed into the soil. Soil samples were collected at 0-6”, 6-12” and 12-24” inside and outside of the root restriction cylinders. During the period between mid-July and mid-August the average pounds of nitrogen measured per acre was 86 and 66 pounds/acre for the isolated and cropped samples indicating that plant roots scavenged 20 pounds/acre of the 86 pounds/acre of the available mineralized nitrogen.

    The project was started with farmland that had been farmed conventionally to grow corn and oats that were harvested as silage and hay for cattle feed. The primary objective of the study was to employ the principles of soil health and determine the effect on hard red spring wheat (HRSW) production and economics when grown in a diverse crop rotation (HRSW, double cropped winter triticale-hairy vetch followed by a 7-species cover crop in the same year, corn, field pea-barley, and sunflower) and compare it to HRSW grown continuously (Control). All crops in the study were sown using no-till seeding and planting equipment. After 5 crop years, the 5-year average HRSW yield was the same for both treatments (Control 40 vs. Rotation 41 bu/ac). But how that occurred is a clearly a demonstration of the soil’s power to grow nutrients resulting from crop rotation and animal grazing. Yields for crop years 1-5 were the same year 1, but in year 2, control wheat yield was 24.4% higher than rotation wheat (56 vs. 45 bu/ac). Change that started when the rotation was initiated became more evident year three, when the yield margin between the two management practices began to narrow, but remained 20.5% higher for the control HRSW (47 vs. 39 bu/ac). Yield reversal became fully realized by year 4, when the rotation wheat yield was 9.1% higher (44 vs. 48 bu/ac), and by the 5th crop year, rotation HRSW yield was 38.9% higher than the control HRSW yield (36 vs. 50 bu/ac).

    The 5-yr average input cost (CTRL $193 vs. ROT $178/ac) and gross return (CTRL $263 vs. ROT $258/ac) resulted in a net return that was $10 higher for rotation HRSW compared to the control HRSW (CTRL $70 vs. ROT $80/ac). There were no differences in protein (CTRL 13.9 vs. ROT 13.3 %) or test weight (CTRL 61.8 vs. ROT 62.0 lb/bu). Rotation crops were evaluated on their grain, oilseed, and forage production input cost, gross return, and net return. Net return was 80, 50, 62, 90, $147/ac for HRSW, cover crop, corn, pea-barley, and sunflower, respectively (P=0.11).

    Non-confinement grazing of crops and residues by beef cattle is showing that less intensive, non-confinement, procedures can have a positive effect on profitability. One hundred replacement heifer calves were used in lower-input increasing gain development program to evaluate the effect of frame score, growth, fertility, and economics. Heifer frame score was 3.5 for small frame (SF) and 5.6 for the large frame (LF) heifers. There were 3 increasing gain phases. During phase 1 (209 days – October 13 to May 10), heifers grazed unharvested corn, corn residue as the winter progressed, and supplemental hay. Gain during phase 1 was 0.60 lb/day. For phase 2 (58 days – May 10 to July 6), the heifers grazed spring crested wheatgrass and gained 1.03 (SF) and 1.33 (LF) lb/day. In phase 3 (85 days – July 7 to September 29), were confined to replicated feedlot pens with 10 heifers/pen and a bull in each pen. The heifers were fed a forage-based 80% alfalfa diet plus 20% DDGS supplement (21% CP) diet. Heifer ADG during the phase 3 breeding period was SF-1.87 and LF-2.14. The number of heifers cycling was based on progesterone assay at the end of the winter period May 10 and at the start of the breeding season August 11. Two blood samples were collected separated by 10 days and serum decanted from clotted samples for analysis. A heifer was considered to have reached puberty when serum progesterone level was ≥ 1 ng/mL. Puberty in May was 18 and 40% for SF and LF heifers, respectively, and in August the percent of heifers cycling was 90 and 96% for SF and LF heifers, respectively. Total pregnancy for the 50 day breeding period was 86 and 84% for the SF and LF heifers, respectively, indicating that the increasing gain development program was successful. Partial economic analysis taking into account the value of open market heifers was lowest for SF heifers that cost $263/heifer to develop compared to the LF heifer that cost $316/heifer.

    Compared to traditional feedlot growing and finishing of yearling steers, 141 steers grown for modest winter growth of approximately 1.0 pound/day that grazed perennial and annual forages (crested wheatgrass, native range pasture, pea-barley intercrop, and unharvested corn) for 182 days before entering the feedlot required the least number of days on feed (66 days) compared to the feedlot control (142 days) and an all perennial treatment (91 days). Reducing feedlot residency from 142 days to 66 days was profitable even during a period when corn was priced over $7/bushel. Control feedlot steers lost $298/steer whereas the perennial/annual forage steers returned $9 profit/steer; a margin difference of $307/steer. Cattle hedging is a common practice in the cattle feeding industry. When agricultural economists at North Dakota State University applied hedging techniques to the biological data collected in this study, realizing that marketing months differ, the feedlot steers (142 days on feed) would have lost an additional $65/steer, whereas the grazing treatment would have gained an additional $22/steer. The net hedging result would have been a combined net loss of -$363/steer for the feedlot steers and a net gain of $31/steer for the steers that grazed perennial and annual forages over a period of 182 days.

    The data clearly shows that long-term extended grazing has the greatest potential for profitability. A second and ongoing similar study is evaluating the performance and economic difference between small (3.4 frame score) and large frame (5.31 frame score) steers using a similar long-term grazing protocol. Small and large frame steers were sent directly to the feedlot (FLOT) and a comparable randomly assigned group grazed perennial and annual forages (GRAZ – crested wheatgrass, native range pasture, pea-barley intercrop, and unharvested corn). To determine system net return, expenses (e.g. steer placement cost, grazing, farming, and feedlot finishing expenses, transportation and brand expenses) were deducted from the gross carcass value. FLOT steers were in the feedlot for 222 days and the GRAZ steers grazed 219 days before entering the feedlot for final short-term finishing. As in the 1st study, extending the grazing period and delaying feedlot entry until the GRAZ steers were 68% heavier than the FLOT control steers were, when entering the feedlot, reduced expenses. Net return for the FLOT treatment was considerably smaller than the GRAZ treatment and within the individual treatments net return for SF steers was much lower. Net return was $188, 113, $527, and $345/steer for the FLOT-LF, FLOT-SF, GRAZ-LF, and GRAZ-SF, respectively.  Carcass quality (% Choice or better) was greater for SF steers; however, there was no difference in muscle tissue shear force tenderness measurement. SF and LF steers were of very high eating quality.

    There were three primary factors that resulted in the GRAZ steers yielding the highest net return. First, large frame GRAZ steers gain weight at a faster rate under grazing conditions resulting in a lower grazing cost/lb of gain (LF-$0.598 vs. SF-$0.658), secondly, GRAZ steers in general demonstrate large compensating growth in the feedlot after an extended grazing period (1.5 lb/day better ADG) and feed efficiency is significantly improved (7.7 vs. 5.5 lb feed/lb body weight gain), and third, carcass weight of large frame GRAZ steers was is heavier than the SF GRAZ steers (111 lb heavier).

    Based on data from the two SARE funded delayed feedlot entry studies, a methodology that includes grazing of perennial grass pasture coupled with grazing seeded annual forage (field pea-barley; unharvested corn) has resulted in positive net return each year. Extremely high corn grain price did reduce net return to near breakeven in the first study; however, the $9 net return was convincing compared to the -$298 loss/steer, and hedging, during a period of rising cattle prices, would have only added to the loss. May-June calving cows in the project were utilized to evaluate cow weight change, body condition change, and wintering cost/cow when the winter grazing season was extended by grazing a 7-specie cover crop, crop residues, and stockpiled winter grass (brome and crested wheatgrasses). Control system cows (CS) were fed medium quality bromegrass-alfalfa hay for an average 134 days from mid-November to early-April, integrated system cows (IS) grazed a 7-specie cover crop and crop residues (corn and sunflower) for an average 73 days from mid-November to late -January, and the forage systems cows (FS) grazed stockpiled grass (brome-crested wheatgrass-alfalfa) and corn residue for an average 107 days from mid-November to early-March. All cows were fed 1.0 lb/cow/day of a 32% crude protein range cake supplement. The pounds of hay fed to the CS, IS, and FS system cows was 4724, 1824, and 891 lb/cow, respectively.

    From the start to the end of the wintering period, cows in all of the treatment groups increased body weight. CS and IS cows increased 0.70-0.80 BCS; however, the FS cows started the study with a BCS of 5.4 and maintained body condition ending with a BCS of 5.4. Reproductive performance is the best measure of evaluation for cow wintering nutritional practices. The total percent of cows calving for the CS, IS, and FS systems was 89.3, 95.2, and 89.6%, respectively, indicating that there was no difference in calving percent and that the winter grazing programs are a good fit with May-June calving, replace labor, reduce cost, without sacrificing animal performance.

    Producer educational schools have been reserved until the last year of the project to allow for accumulation of data upon which to base the educational format and knowledge transfer. The project PI requested a no-cost extension to completed crop, soil, and animal data collection, and outreach programming. Public awareness of this SARE project is increasing and with increasing awareness project PI, Doug Landblom, has been an invited program speaker at a number of soil health workshop programs in western North Dakota and southeastern Montana. Free-lance writers have also published articles on different aspects of the SARE project in the regional bi-monthly publication, Farm and Ranch Guide, and the national magazine, Feed-Lot. Research reports have been published in non-peer reviewed publications in research center annual reports, field day reports, and scientific journal abstracts to include the NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center annual and field day reports, NDSU North Dakota Beef Report, abstracts in the Western Section, American Society of Animal Science annual meeting proceedings, and the University of Wyoming field day report. Extensive heifer development research conducted as a component of this SARE project has been published in the Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Science and additional peer-reviewed publications are being prepared for publication.

    Information obtained from this research suggests that by integrating beef cattle production into a diverse cropping system soil quality improves and both production systems are enhanced. When the inputs of mechanical forage harvesting are replaced with grazing, in which the animal does its own foraging and harvesting, profit margins are improved.


    In response to an increasing need for comparative research and demonstration of holistic practices, SARE project LNC11-335 was designed to evaluate managed grazing within an integrated crop and livestock system to determine the change in soil and crop production when crop production was centered on a diverse crop rotation, and to further determine the effect of integration on beef production. An important aspect of the study was to determine the effect of integrated systems on farm profitability and educational venues for high school and college students, a post-doctorate short-term research scholar, producer-cooperator farm demonstration projects, field days, workshops, YouTube videos, regional seminars, and professional meetings. In the sections that follow, the project objectives and performance targets defined and the approach, results and discussion, and economic analysis, publications and outreach, and farmer adoption are presented. Finally, areas needing additional study are presented in the last section.

    Project objectives:

    1. Compare three cow-calf production systems (Conventional, Integrated, and Yearling) tailored for the semi-arid region of the Northern Great Plains from birth to final harvest to determine the effect of system on production and profitability using whole-systems econometric analyses and ranch profitability analyses.
    2. Evaluate the effect of systems integration on the biological responses of animals, crops, weeds, soil, and water conservation.
    3. Establish student alternative production system programs to include: High school and college student awareness programs, undergraduate summer internships and research projects.
    4. Conduct integrated crop-livestock grazing management workshops for producers, Extension educators and other government agency personnel.
    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.