Whole System Approach to Integrated Crop/Livestock Production to Enhance Soil Health and Profitability of Cropping and Livestock Systems in the Northern Great Plains

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $199,995.00
Projected End Date: 10/22/2022
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Michael Ostlie
North Dakota State University

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, wheat
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing management
  • Crop Production: cover crops, cropping systems, nutrient cycling, relay cropping
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Production Systems: holistic management, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Land use competition for crops and beef production has resulted in increased costs and decreased profitability for both sectors. Integration of crop and livestock production in a functional system approach is a viable way to alleviate these challenges. Cow/calf operations are the predominant livestock production systems in the Northern Great Plains (NGPs). Traditional backgrounding systems in the region involve feeding harvested forages, co­products, and grains in a drylot setting for two to six months post weaning. This type of system requires extensive infrastructure in pen and bunk space, as well as feeding equipment and farmers' time to deliver feed. Incorporating cover crops into existing crop rotations (in double or relay cropping systems) for backgrounding calves may provide a sustainable and profitable alternative for both beef and crop enterprises. Allowing backgrounding calves to graze cover crops on a cropping system rotation can be a viable alternative for farmers looking to add nutrients to their cropped fields and to decrease their livestock feed bill, increasing their chances to maximize net profit of their whole operation. This project is designed to 1) evaluate an integrated crop/livestock management strategy of backgrounding weaned calves in the NGPs under a double or relay-cropping system by grazing cover crops and crop residues after cash crop harvest; 2) enhance the soil functional capacity (measured by soil health indicators); 3) minimize economic and social impact of land use competition between crop and livestock by showing that these activities can work in synergy instead of being incompatible on the same piece of ground; 4) create awareness regarding this crop/livestock management strategy in the NGPs through social media, cafe talks, Extension educators, cooperators' involvement in the project and on-farm tours. We hypothesize that lower-cost weight gain can be put on weaned calves in double or relay-cropping systems by grazing cover crops and crop residues. In addition, crop farmers will see an enhancement in soil health and a reduction in fertilizer use while integrating livestock into their operations and increasing productivity per acre. Cooperating producers will test research concepts on-farm and will be central to the demonstration and outreach of the project.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This multidisciplinary project will educate farmers on crop/livestock integrated management approaches that can increase both profitability and sustainability of their operations. Additionally, it will provide education on soil health and on the economics of backgrounding calves in the NGPs grazing cover crops versus traditional drylot system. Educational workshops will be held at cooperators' farms and at the GREG, where participants' willingness to adopt will be assessed through surveys. Additional outreach will be through county extension agents, educational videos on social media outlets and publication of results in reports, biogs, abstracts and peer-reviewed journals.

    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.