Sustainable Crop-Livestock Integration for the System Health in the Dryland Inland Pacific Northwest

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $47,344.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Okanogan Conservation District
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Leslie Michel
Okanogan Conservation District


  • Agronomic: wheat


  • Animal Production: grazing - multispecies
  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research

    Proposal abstract:

     Throughout the Pacific Northwest there is increasing interest in integrating livestock with cropping systems. This is driven, in part, by
    volatile petroleum prices and the direct effects on synthetic fertilizer and pesticide costs for crop farmers. Soil acidification and organic
    matter loss in Eastern Washington has been initiated by mono-cropping and perpetuated by heavy synthetic nitrogen fertilization.
    Dryland wheat-fallow producers have begun switching to a direct seed tillage system for the many soil health benefits that come from a
    no-till system such as reduced runoff, better infiltration, and more consistent crop stands. Four of the five participating producers use direct
    seeding, have been participating in a cover crop trial for 2 years and are highly engaged producers in investigating sustainable agricultural
    paths for the region. The fifth producer is a cattleman and specialist in planned grazing and holistic management. Producers enjoy seeing
    increased residue, better soil moisture and fewer dust clouds come planting time. Direct Seed is a step in the right direct for soil health,
    however it has increased pesticide use among users. Many producers are interested in reducing pesticide use which can be accomplished
    with increased cover and competition for non-weedy species.
    Economic drivers in commodity crop production create a chronic high-risk economic situation that continues to reduce rural agricultural
    family populations in the study area. Producers often feel stuck in the current, extremely low biodiversity systems because of the tight profit
    margins. This combination of pressures and lack of options creates a high level of stress to the individuals and families.
    However in the places where producers talk openly about these pressures and are supported in working together, there is interest in a shift
    toward management that 1) optimizes profit rather than maximizing yield, 2) conserves nutrients through biological cycling in both crops
    and livestock, 3) maximizes use of water use efficiency through the system as a whole, in this region that is predominantly water-limited,
    and 4) draws on diversity of knowledge and infrastructure within the larger community.
    The long-term goals of the producers:
    1. Increase diversity in a system that has historically planted a single crop for 100 years.
    2. Reduce pesticide and synthetic herbicide use.
    3. Reduce long term risk and farm viability through sustainable and holistic farm practices.
    This project seeks to refine and spread an integrated crop-livestock management system that supports an effective and regenerative
    nutrient and water cycle, in diametric opposition to the current degenerative system. Recovering both soil health and creating a sustainable
    management system is critical to the long-term profitability and productivity of operations in this region, and is critical for the sustainability
    of our rural communities. Integration of cover crops and grazing animals to terminate cover crops has the potential to begin recovery of low
    tilth soils. Integration is motivated also by increasing awareness of the importance of soil health for water-holding capacity, nutrient
    availability, and soil conservation (avoiding erosion).
    The integrated crop-livestock approach is poised to succeed in central and eastern Washington because demand for grazing land is high,
    larger producers are accustomed to managing animals on farmland in the winter using electric fencing, and crop farmers need to diversify
    their profit centers. Both irrigated and dryland grazing in the region have potential to be tremendously productive. Most are limited by poor
    nutrient cycling and poor grazing management. Continuously grazed pastures forgo significant forage yield because perpetual grazing
    pressure maintains a very low marginal plant growth rate. In a grazed cover cropping scenario, grazing takes out most of the cover crop as
    well as weed biomass, cycles these nutrients into readily available manure and urine forms, and is followed by planting a field crop. This
    project promotes diversification of the forage base for livestock production by providing alternative grazing areas. This inherently promotes
    more sustainable grazing practices which will promote greater per acre productivity. Available nutrients are increased for the following
    crop, and manures and cover crop roots add more carbon to the soil to improve soil health.
    Overall the integrated crop-livestock system provides economic diversification and increase profitability; environmental protection via
    increased biodiversity, erosion control, and soil health improvement; and improved social stability through improved economics and
    community-level cooperation.
    Our project team will work with our producers who typically farm in a Direct Seed, wheat-fallow rotation. During the fallow season a
    mixture of annuals will be planted and grazed. The field will return to wheat during the typical wheat rotation as spring wheat, or if enough
    moisture is present as winter wheat. A key goal of the project is to identify quantifiable cues that trigger proper timing of grazing down the
    cover crop, to effectively reduce weed populations and maintain sufficient moisture for a winter-sown cash crop that takes full advantage of
    the limited rainfall in this region.
    The educational and outreach components of this project will address both crop-cover-crop-grazing management (above-ground
    production) and soil health (below-ground production). Speakers and educators include both university faculty and the producers

    Project objectives from proposal:

     1. Conduct a replicated comparison of grazed cover crop vs. wheat-fallow management.
    Comparisons will use randomized complete block arrangement, within each of three farms. Each operation will dedicate at least 30 acres to
    the project so that cattle numbers and operations can be done on a realistic scale. The wheat-fallow operations will be based on the
    producer’s current machinery and practices. The cover crop mixture will be planted in early May and consist of grasses, broadleaves, and
    legumes. The appropriate seed mixture will be determined based on previous yield work in the area, nutrient content for the livestock, and
    desired seeds per acre at a low cost. All producers will use the same seed supplier and seed mix to provide consistency across the project
    area. Grazing will occur in June-August depending on stand growth and water availability.
    Data to be collected will include a thorough set of soil health measures including soil moisture, pH, nutrient availability, microbial activity,
    and total and soluble carbon; as well as forage value of cover crop; livestock weight gain; stocking rate and density; weed population and
    control costs; and subsequent wheat crop yield and protein. A total economic comparison of the systems will be conducted to assist
    producers in their decision making processes. Producers will use their own equipment for planting and crop management on their land.
    WSARE funds will be used to purchase a portable livestock scale, seed for the covers, and portable fencing where needed.
    2. Conduct education and outreach on soil health, cover crops, managed grazing, and crop-livestock integrated systems.
    Outreach is a crucial part of helping producers understand the importance and value of soil health, and realistic ways of obtaining it. This
    project will enable us to quantify the impacts of improving soil health, reduced use of chemical use as producers move towards a more
    holistic system, and help us educate others in the process. The Okanogan Conservation District is already actively involved throughout the
    state in presentations and field days that highlight soil health and cover crops as tools for producers, speaking to over 400 in 2016. This
    project will be actively incorporated into those presentations in 2017 and 2018, as detailed in the Outreach Plan.
    One major output will be an outreach video. The producers and ag professionals will work with WSU Communications staff at the College
    of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences to create a video similar to the Farmer to Farmer videos produced by SARE and WSU
    CSANR. A video allows interested producers to visualize the whole system and see differences in the soil and weed pressures. Videos will be
    easily be shared via social media and used at conferences.

    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.