- Agronomic: cotton
- Animals: sheep
- Pest Management: prevention
- Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
- Soil Management: soil quality/health
The economic opportunity represented by organic cotton premiums has captured the interest and commitment of many producers across the South. Semi-arid West Texas is conducive to successful organic cotton production due to generally lower pest and disease pressure (and reduced reliance on pesticides) compared to much of the Cotton Belt. However, mechanical- and hand-weed control are not environmentally nor economically sustainable. Due to limited water, portions of irrigated land are left fallow and rotated annually. During fallow periods, this acreage is plowed several times to suppress weeds. Sheep integration in organic cotton systems has potential to suppress weeds, reduce tillage, and add value to the overall system. Furthermore, conversion of dry acreages to perennial forage crops would be more environmentally sustainable than the current regime, and would supplement sheep grazing opportunities. A new system, integrating sheep, cotton, annual forages, and perennial forages poses unique potential for diversification and ecological resilience. The proposed research seeks to identify optimum practices for “sheep-weeding” in organic cotton (i.e. cotton growth stage, sheep stocking rate and duration). The work will also assess establishment methods and species for conversion of degraded cropland to perennial forages. System impact will not be based on single response variables, but a network of components characteristic of the whole system. This comprehensive set of field research trials will be coupled with dynamic economic analyses to explore critical questions and inform educational products for the public. An advisory council of stakeholders will guide efforts and help interpret and leverage findings and future work.
Project objectives from proposal:
Objective 1. Employ Neef and Neubert’s six dimensions of participatory research framework to facilitate positive, favorable interaction between researchers and stakeholders and enhance the viability and livelihood of organic cotton stakeholders in the South.
a. Coordinate needs assessment via Q-methodology to explore stakeholder perspectives, needs, and expected benefits and outcomes of the proposed project.
b. Establish a project advisory board
c. Host regular town-hall meetings to convene with stakeholder groups on research progress and direction.
Objective 2. Assess agronomic and stocking management implications of sheep-weeding in cotton
a. Year 1: Evaluate timing of sheep-weeding initiation relative to cotton growth stage, and sheep-weeding termination relative to varying thresholds of weed herbage mass removal.
b. Years 2 and 3: Compare optimized sheep weeding strategy (from Obj. 2a) to alternative and otherwise standard weed management systems.
Objective 3. Identify best-suited perennial and annual forage management options for converted land
a. Test establishment success, forage yield and nutritive value, and soil health indicators across a range of forb inclusion rates with native perennial grasses.
b. Assess forage yield, nutritive value, and sheep grazing preference among summer and winter annual legumes and legume-grass mixtures.
Objective 4. Develop, deliver, and test public resources, economic decision support tools, and stakeholder resources for continued education and assessment of sheep-weeding practices.
a. Economic enterprise budgets informed by measurements in Objectives 2 and 3.
b. Develop and deploy reusable learning modules
c. Publish findings in popular press articles and develop educational videos