Ruminant Production Systems Inter-Related with Non-Traditional Crop Management

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1990: $108,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Vern Anderson
Carrington Research/Extension Center, North Dakota State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: barley, soybeans, sunflower, wheat, hay
  • Vegetables: sweet corn
  • Animals: bovine, sheep


  • Animal Production: manure management, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: workshop, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization


    Integration and diversification are principles for maximizing the use of limited agricultural resources and minimizing risks associated with a single enterprise. In recent times, an increasingly sophisticated agriculture has focused more on specialization. Considering the need to become more sustainable in long term land productivity and difficult economic times, it is appropriate to research alternatives to high input single enterprise farming.

    This project evaluated the practical, environmental, and economical aspects of adding a ruminant livestock enterprise to crop farms using traditional vs. non-traditional crop management systems. Ruminant animals contribute to diversified, flexible and sustainable cropping systems in four significant ways.
    First, ruminants are a marketing tool to allow a more diverse selection of crops for more sustainable rotations.
    Second, ruminants can make use of crop products that have little or no cash value such as sprouted grain, excess crop residue, frozen corn or aftermath grazing.
    Third, ruminants contribute to the cropping system by producing fecal material useful as a nitrogen source for crop production.
    Finally, ruminants diversify the economic risk of single enterprise agriculture. Several other less significant advantages include decentralizing livestock production for pollution control, occupying family and hired labor throughout the year, and developing a more diverse local economy.

    Some other benefits may be more spiritual such as caregiving to animals that respond to treatment and observing the miracle of new life at calving. However, there are some disadvantages including competition for labor during critical times for both crop and livestock production schedules, difficulty in keeping up with sophisticated production practices in both enterprises, and added capital needs. Beef cattle and sheep were studied under drylot conditions for two reasons. First, to control the diet for the study of imposed nutritional treatments impact on performance.

    Second, animals in a lot can maximize the use of harvestable crop products from an intensively farmed land base. Lactating drylot beef cows and ewes fed high residue diets supplemented with legume hay and agricultural processing by-products or on farm grown protein sources produced satisfactory performance in growth and breeding. Two milk production levels were studied with highly different nutrient requirements. Higher amounts of crop residue were used in lower milking cow rations. Cows will consume a wide variety of feeds but diets need to be balanced to meet nutrient requirements using palatable combinations of ingredients.

    Calves were successfully weaned at 4 months of age to permit higher residue lower cost diets for non lactating drylot cows. Creep feed needs to be offered prior to weaning with calves consuming a minimum of 2 pounds per head per day for successful adaptation to a feedlot diet. Wheat screenings were successfully used in diets for weaned calves to lower feed costs without reducing gains. Yeast enhanced performance of early weaned calves however a more complex probiotic supplement had no effect on feed intake, gain, health of calves weaned from drylot cows at the traditional time.

    Two four year cropping systems included in this study are described as conventional (wheat-sunflower-barley-fallow system)or a low purchased input system (wheat with underseeded legume-legume hay-corn-soybean). Following carbon from harvested crop products through the ruminant animal and back to the field indicates that 40 to 50% is returned to the land. As much as 70 to 80% of the nitrogen removed and fed to animals was recovered but supplemental hay was fed. In general, more carbon and nitrogen was returned to the field as manure than expected.

    Composted cattle manure at 6 tons per acre spread on alternate years produced an average of 40.7 bushels of wheat per acre compared to 36.6 for ammonium nitrate applied every year at an equivalent rate of 50 pounds N. Nitrogen costs averaged $.1433 per bushel of wheat for manure and $.1608 for anhydrous ammonia. Economic analysis suggests adding ruminants to a crops only farm can be profitable. An average farm used in the model supported 85 beef cows without adding pasture and returned an additional $24,310 with conventional tillage and $27,497 using conservation tillage. The same model farm would support 219 ewes and return $17,155. Coefficient of variation for returns to overhead dropped from .845 for crops only farms to .48 for integrated crop-livestock enterprises. Crops only farms in the Northern Plains states could profit from adding beef cows or sheep with little change in cropping systems if maximum use is made of all crop products. Optimum production with high levels of management help insure a profitable and sustainable crop-livestock integrated farm.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1: Determine the performance and adaptability of lactating beef cows, feeder cattle and ewes to alternative management practices and high residue diets produced with low-input crop production systems.

    Objective 2: Quantify nitrogen and carbon movement for crops only and crop-livestock production systems.

    Objective 3: Compare whole farm economic returns from conventional cropping systems, low input cropping systems and low input crop-livestock production 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.