Ruminant Production Systems Inter-Related with Non-Traditional Crop Management
Ruminant animals contribute to diversified, flexible and sustainable cropping systems in many
significant ways. Ruminants are a marketing tool to allow a more diverse selection of crops for
more sustainable rotations, and they 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. The fecal
material produced by ruminants is a useful nitrogen source for crop production, and the
economic risk of single enterprise agriculture can be reduced by incorporating them into a
farming enterprise. 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.
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
2) Quantify nitrogen and carbon movement for crops only and crop-livestock production
3) Compare whole-farm economic returns from conventional cropping systems, low-input
cropping systems and low-input crop-livestock production systems.
Methods and Results:
During a two year study, drylot beef cows were fed alternative crop products in two separate
experiments. In experiment one, average milking beef cows were fed wheat screenings,
sunflower meal and lupine beans as their protein source in addition to limited amounts of mixed
legume hay and free choice cereal grain straw. In experiment two, above average milking cow
were offered edible bean splits or alfalfa hay in addition to corn silage and free choice poor
quality hay. Calves were offered equivalent amounts of creep feed in both experiments.
No statistical differences were detected in performance of the cows or calves between the
treatments in either of the experiments. Feed costs varied depending to a great extent on the cost
of the protein supplement. Salvage or low value feeds such as wheat screenings appear to be
most economical, but prices need to be compared on a cost per pound of protein basis. Other
feeds, such as lupines, may contribute nitrogen to the cropland, which in turn would reduce
purchased fertilizer requirements. Rebreeding success was satisfactory for both experiments.
Lamb birth and growth information was similar across treatments with no significant
A field-scale, large plot cropping systems experiment initiated in 1987 at the North Dakota State
University Carrington Research Extension Center was used in conjunction with the beef
cow/calf herd at the same location. Of the C harvested and fed to the cattle, 40 to 50 percent was
returned in the composted manure. As much as 70-80 percent of the N was recovered when
feeding supplementary hay, which added to the N coming back to the cultivated field. Used
appropriately, composted beef manure was able to provide the same wheat yield results as the
high level of fertilizer N. Knowing when and how much fertility biological sources of N will
provide to growing crops is critical however, to best utilize them. They do not react as chemical
fertilizers. Composted beef manure gave the greatest results in the second year after application,
and the impact of a failed green-manured legume was observed four years later. Tillage seems a
viable management option to either hasten, or slow, nutrient cycling.
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.
Practical Applications and Direct Impact:
This completed study with beef cow/calf and ewe/lamb enterprises successfully supported
largely by cropping system by-products suggest livestock can be managed successfully and
contribute to the profitability and stability of family farms. Integrating more farms with
crop/livestock operations may have a significant positive impact on family farms and small rural
communities. In real terms, the beef cow inventory in the state of North Dakota could be
doubled without substantial changes in cropping systems due to the large amount of cropping
systems residues and processing by-products that are produced and shipped out of the region.
This is a protein rich area, producing oil seed meals, barley and legume hays. These are easily
combined with crop residues and low quality to forages to meet the nutritional needs of beef
cows or ewes.