Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems: Dryland Crop Rotations to Improve Economic and Ecological Sustainability in the Central High Plains

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $212,928.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Western
State: Wyoming
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Steve Paisley
University of Wyoming

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Vegetables: peas (culinary)
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, pasture fertility, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, winter forage
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping, cover crops, fallow, intercropping, application rate management, conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, focus group
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance, value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships

    Proposal abstract:

    As seasonal precipitation patterns become more variable on the Central High Plains, crop and livestock producers are seeking alternatives to the traditional wheat-fallow systems to reduce erosion and improve soil quality and profitability. Using a Western SARE Research and Education grant, Steven Paisley, University of Wyoming extension beef specialist, will work with a team of crop scientists, economists and producers to assess the value of alternative crops like annual legumes. The project will evaluate alternative cropping on 360 acres currently in wheat-fallow strips, comparing the traditional rotation with three rotations of forage legumes and a perennial range mix. The pastures will be fenced and grazed with replacement heifers to determine livestock gain and plant response to grazing. Enterprise budgets will be developed showing costs and returns. Information generated by this three-year project - the initial segment of a multi-year study evaluating dryland cropping systems - will be shared with producers in southeastern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    A) Increasing producer knowledge, awareness, attitudes and skills:
    Developing additional options for dryland cropping systems is extremely critical for producers in southeastern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska. As seasonal precipitation patterns become more variable (25), alternative systems that improve economic sustainability while reducing erosion and improving soil quality are very important for the agricultural community. This project will increase producer knowledge as cooperators grow and utilize new annual legume pasture in existing winter wheatifallow systems. They as well as other regional producers,will have access to results via visual assessment during field tours, grower meetings and publications. Knowledge gained will guide Central High Plains producers in the adoption of new legume-crop/pasture plants and conversion to more intense and integrated crop/livestock production systems. Information will be disseminated via professional meetings, scientific journals, popular media, extension edtcation programming and field days. The measurable number of acres or animals that will be impacted may both be measured in the hundreds of thousands. Today, alternative crops such as sunflowers and proso millet replace 20-25% of fallow in Wyoming. Annual legumes might exceed this level of production. An especially important animal impact of legume pastures is to reduce confined feeding. The measurable economic impact to farm and ranch families and communities is impossible to predict precisely. In fact, this research is designed to generate data to more precisely measure that impact. So far, our economic analysis of grazed Austrian Winter Pea (AWP) in place of fallow favors the replacement of fallow with a return of an extra $12/acre (16). Based on a 50% fallow replacement this means an additional $1.1 million/yr for the agricultural economy of southeastern Wyoming alone. Adoption of these practices in adjacent states would result in
    substantially larger returns, as estimated below in the economic impact.

    B) Information dissemination: Once the project has been established, results will routinely be shared through multiple avenues, including University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension (UWCES)and University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, discipline-specific national and regional research meetings, and especially local media avenues including local and regional newspapers and magazines.

    I) Cooperative Extension will be the main venue of information dissemination via:
    a. Coordination of programming efforts with UWCES Profitable and Sustainable Ag Systems (PSAS) initiative team of area extension educators who emphasize livestock and cropping systems programming. PSAS programming meetings will be held on site, sharing preliminary research results, as well as programming opportunities such as regional cropping system tours.
    b. Annual on-site research field days, coordinated with cooperative extension personnel, focusing on sharing results with area producers.
    c. Cooperative Extension publications, including the annual Reflections magazine, monthly Agademics newsletters, departmental research reports, and Experiment Station reports.
    d. State association meetings, including Wyoming Stock Growers and Wool Growers annual winter convention.
    e. UW Agricultural Experiment Station website, as well as the NDSU Ley Farming website

    2) National and regional scientific meetings. All cattle production data, forage and grain production, soils information, and economic results will be published in Animal Science and Plant Sciences Departmental reports. Finally, faculty and graduate students associated with this
    project will present data at appropriate scientific meetings, with the ultimate goal of producing refereed, scientific publications.

    3) Local media. Through the UWCES Communications office, regularly scheduled press releases will be provided to local and regional newspapers in Wyoming, western NE, and eastern CO. In addition, data and research updates will be shared via two regional agricultural newspapers, Tri-State Livestock News (Sturgis, SD) and Wyoming Livestock Roundup (Casper, WY).
    C) Resources impacted: The integrated crop/livestock systems will increase crop diversity over traditional wheat/fallow dryland cropping systems, introducing the use of Medic (annual Medicago spp.) pastures, as well as winter and spring pea varieties to a traditional single crop system. The proposed rotations will also improve soil quality through the incorporation of
    legumes and livestock grazing in crop rotations. These systems will also help to reduce soil erosion and farming inputs compared with the traditional wheat-fallow system. Finally, the
    proposed systems will also provide livestock grazing opportunities.
    D) Positive economic impact (in dollars): Over the last 10 years, approximately 189,000 acres of dryland wheat were planted in Wyoming, with an average yield of 25.4 bushels per acre. The ten-year average price Wyoming producers received for wheat was $2.62 per bushel. Combining Wyoming average yields and prices results in estimated revenues of $66.55 per acre. Wheat producers can expect to have yearly average costs of $50 per acre (16), resulting in low profit margins for Wyoming dryland wheat producers, in this case $16.55 per acre.

    Current planted dryland wheat acreages in eastern Colorado and the Nebraska Panhandle are 1,670,000 and 689,000, respectively. This brings the total planted wheat/fallow acreage in the high plains region to approximately 2.5 million acres. Over the same time period, winter wheat yields averaged 33.5 and 31.0 bulac for eastern Colorado and the Nebraska Panhandle resulting in weighted yields of 3 1.0 bushels per acre and $202.5 million gross revenue for the 3-state Central High Plains region. Yields for dryland wheat production have remained fairly consistent for the past 20 years, indicating that an alternative cropping system may be needed to increase revenue per acre. With recent increases in fuel, seed, fertilizer, and chemical prices, a lower cost, higher revenue alternative cropping system becomes desirable.
    Use of an alternative cropping system that includes legume grazing could significantly reduce
    producer costs when compared to wheat fallow systems. For example, research has shown that
    grazing thud cutting alfalfa in northern Wyoming increases revenue per acre by $18, while also decreasing costs almost $100 per acre (30). This principle can be applied to grazing dryland cropping systems-lower costs in the form of eliminating mechanical harvesting and reduced variable costs per acre in terms of fuel, machinery, and labor. For example, adding an alternative forage crop such as AWP to a wheat/fallow rotation can increase average revenue per acre by as much as $12 (16). This could mean a $2.2 million dollar increase in revenue for Wyoming dryland wheat producers (projected over the entire state wheat acreage).

    2. PRODUCER INVOLVEMENT: Alternative crops and sustainable cropping systems were identified as a top priority by area producers that attended meetings held across Wyoming for the newly established Sustainable Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SAREC). Additionally, James Sedman, a local farmer and livestock producer, is participating as a major contributor to the project, assisting in development of the grant proposal, providing cattle for the grazing treatments, as well as interpretation and economic analysis of the final data.

    3. PROJECT RELEVANCE: A 1996 Great Plains review of dryland production systems published in the Agronomy Journal reported that integrated dryland crop/livestock systems can decrease erosion and increase returns, but site-specific crop/livestock systems are required (21). Regardless, the traditional dryland wheat-fallow cropping system is still the mainstay in the Central High Plains. An indictor of the level of sustainability of this system is revealed in the conversion to CRP. Between 1990 to 2000, CRP enrollment has increased by 12.4% in the three major dryland crop production counties of Wyoming. Nationwide over this same period, CRP enrollment rose only 1.9% (6). Immediate attention is required! Although the 14-month fallow associated with the traditional winter wheat-summer fallow system (WW-SF) has generally guaranteed successful wheat seedling establishment, the system is notoriously inefficient. Usually less than 25% of the precipitation received during fallow is stored in the soil for the subsequent wheat crop, and only one crop is harvested every two years (25). Weed control with tillage leaves a bare soil surface during the latter part of the fallow and into the wheat seedling growth period, which intensifies both wind and water erosion. Furthermore, tillage stimulates soil organic matter (SOM) losses compared to annual cropping resulting in a need for supplemental N for cereal crops (17). Unfortunately, even no-till WW-SF is still inefficient in terms of water conservation (approx. 40% utilization; 26). By substituting herbicidal weed control for tillage, farmers can decrease erosion, but this usually increases costs and the net result can be less profitable than conventional tillage fallow systems (24,28). Inefficient water use in both tillage and chemical fallow systems can reduce water quality. As much as 55 ppm nitrate has been reported in groundwater beneath crop/fallow cultivated land (10). In summary, adverse effects of fallow include lower profit potential, decreased SOM, declining soil fertility, inefficient use of the water resource, root zone leaching of nutrients, soil erosion, air pollution, and surface and groundwater pollution (27).

    A possible solution to reversing these negative trends is to identify ecologically and economically sustainable integrated dryland crop/livestock systems. More intensive crop rotations might increase returns, reduce overall long-term financial risk, and decrease erosion
    (1 1). Integrated dryland crop and livestock agroecosystems are agriclimatic, zone-specific, and ecologically and economically sustainable (21). Thus, there is a need to identify and develop appropriate legume/cereal/livestock systems that fit the natural resource base. This project is designed to incorporate forages (both annual and perennial) and livestock into the existing wheat-fallow system which will address the WSARE goals of enhancing the quality and
    productivity of soil, conserve soil and water, promote crop and livestock diversification and
    evaluate the environmental and economic implications of adopting sustainable agricultural
    systems. It will be done on a scale that will attract producer interest.

    Research at the UW's Archer Research & Extension (R&E) Center has shown that extended dryland cropping systems, such as wheat/com/ millet/ fallow can improve profitability while increasing crop diversity (16). Researchers at UW believe that the key to sustainable dryland agriculture is forages, ideally legume forages. We are inspired by successful Australian dryland agroecosystems that utilize annual pasture and grain legumes to integrate cereal and livestock production (l,5, 9,33,37). In Australian "ley farming" systems, annual legume pastures profitably and ecologically integrate cereal crop and livestock production to form the foundation for flexible and sustainable semi-arid lands farming systems (4,5, 9,33,37). Medic (annual Medicago spp.) pasture alternates with wheat in much of semi-arid southern Australia. Annual medics regenerate yearly &om a soil seed bank, and in the pasture phase of the cropping sequence provide forage for sheep and cattle. In the cereal phase of the cycle, regenerating medics may briefly furnish forage before seedbed preparation for planting wheat or barley. Today, annual medics are the principal legume component on more than 50 million acres in the "wheat-sheep" zone of southern Australia where they have largely replaced fallow to provide a
    myriad of benefits to Australian agriculture (5,9,33,36), which include more profitable cereal
    production (2); high-quality livestock forage (23); self-regenerating pastures fiom a soil seed
    bank (9, 12,35); integrated pest management with a better break to cereal pest and disease life cycles than provided by fallow and weed suppression by medic swards (22); reduced fertilizer inputs (13,35); increased plant and field water use efficiency due to better plant nutrition, more intensive rotations, and improved soil water-holding capacity (7,34); improved air and water quality (29); soil conservation and improved soil quality (5, 8, 9); no need for strip farming allowing more efficient use of large machinery and fencing (28); and the potential global benefit of C-sequestration as related to the higher primary productivity of ley farming and reduced SOM oxidation relative to fallow systems.
    Annual legumes in rotation with cereals might similarly sustain agriculture on the Central High Plains. To this end researchers at the UW have cooperated with producers to identify viable annual dryland legume cropping options. Results are promising, but more work must be done before annual legumes become prominent across the Central High Plains landscape. Thanks to funding by WSARE (SW98-071), it has been shown that a winter annual legumelsheep grazing agroecosystem (AWP; Pisurn sativurn ssp. arvense) might produce more than twice the profit of conventional wheatJfallow as lambs gained >0.5 lblday grazing pea pastures and subsequent wheat crops were higher in protein compared to wheat after fallow (3, 15, 16, 18). The present proposal will include grazing studies with cattle, more important than sheep on the Central High Plains.

    After extensive evaluations of diverse annual medics (36), University of Wyoming researchers have determined that M. rigidula (a species found at high latitudes and elevations in Eurasia, and neither naturalized nor commercialized in Australia) is a promising candidate for winter annual regenerative pasture on the Central High Plains (3 1, 32). This species carries the necessary winter survival potential and seed survival and staggered seed-softening for our environment (18, 19, 36). An especially valuable characteristic of this species is that can be effectively nodulated by readily available commercial alfalfa rhizobia (14). Thanks to funding by WSARE (SW03-008) optimum establishment practices for this medic are currently under investigation. In addition, Wyoming produced seed of M. rigidula line SA10343, was established mid-August 2002 and again in 2003 at the UW R&E Center near Torrington, WY. The year following
    sowing, forage sampling took place at 14 day intervals between mid-April to mid-June. At the
    mid-April bud stage there was a mean (2 yr) of 910 kg/ha of DM forage, 14 days latter forage production reached 1,730 kg/ha of DM and by mid-May mean DM forage production reached 3,780 kg/h. Forage quality by harvest date was above 20% protein and 150 RFV during year one (quality analysis for yr 2 was not completed at printing) into late May when DM forage reached
    6,600 kg/ha (20). However, information is needed on livestock performance during April-June, which is a critical period of pasture demand. A ley pasture resource would make it possible to rest permanent pastures allowing for robust spring re-growth.

    This study will focus on the evaluation of dryland forage options that are essential in establishing
    an integrated dryland crop, forage and livestock system. Cash-crop, forage and livestock diversified production systems are perhaps the ultimate opportunity for sustainability. To begin
    to fill existing knowledge gaps, information fiom these existing components will be combined into integrated dryland crop, forage and livestock systems. This study will establish three integrated dryland crop, forage and livestock systems that will be compared with the traditional
    wheat-fallow system and permanent pasture. The integrated systems will be extended crop rotations of wheat that either incorporates livestock grazing, or produces transportable feed stocks in the form of hay and grain. The systems will be evaluated in terms soil quality, production (grain, forage, and livestock gain) and most importantly, profitability.

    4. PROJECT OBJECTIVES: The objectives of this project are to establish integrated dryland cash-crop/forage/livestock systems and evaluate the impacts on soil quality and profitability. This proposed study will represent the initial three years of a multi-year study evaluating dryland cropping system opportunities in Southeastern Wyoming. Sub-objectives are:
    1. Establish and evaluate the use of both annual and regenerative legumes (peas & medic) in an integrated crop, forage and livestock system 2. Evaluate profitability of each of the proposed alternative crop, forage and livestock systems. 3. Measure and compare soil quality for the alternative crop, forage and livestock systems vs. traditional wheat-fallow and perennial pasture. 4. Compare long-term sustainability of permanent pastures vs. sustainable cropping and livestock
    systems on existing wheat-fallow dryland fields.

    5. PROJECT METHODS: For the proposed project, 360 acres of cropland currently in wheat/fallow strips will be used to evaluate alternative cropping systems applicable for the arid inter-mountain west (See APPENDIX A). Research will be conducted at the newly-established UW SAREC, located near Lingle, Wyoming. A brief description of the proposed systems, and crop rotations are provided below.

    Proposed Crop Rotation Systems*:
    Traditional winter wheat / fallow rotation winter wheat fallow winter wheat
    Winter regenerative legume forage - grazed winter wheat rigid medic rigid medic
    Winter annual planted legume forage - grazed winter wheat winter pea winter wheat
    Spring annual planted legume for foragetgrain winter wheat spring pea winter wheat
    Perennial range mix Establish perennial masses, optional maze yr. 3
    * With three pastures assigned to each cropping system, all phases of each rotation will be
    represented within each year of the study.

    Beginning in Year 1, the perimeter of proposed site will be fenced. Twelve pastures and the perennial grass paddock will be established based on soil type, soil testing, and terrain to minimize differences in crop production potential (see attachments). During each year of the three-year project, all steps of each cropping system will be represented to minimize the year effect on overall production. Treatment effects on soil quality will be tracked by Gary Hergert. Dr Hergert will establish baseline conditions on both quantitative and qualitative factors including soil organic matter, (total organic carbon, organic Nitrogen, and C:N ratio). Sampling will be done when the treatment plots are established to reflect spatial variability (soils, slope, landscape position) plus average conditions within the larger experimental units. These points will be logged with GPS/GIS technology and the plots re-sampled at the same points after three years.

    Pastures will be fenced off separately, and replacement heifers, provided by cooperating producer James Sedman, will be used to determine livestock gain and plant response to grazing. Heifers will remain on grazed pastures from early May until early to mid-June. Forage quality and standing dry matter estimates will be taken systematically throughout the grazing period. Under the direction of Steve Paisley, stocking rates for each pasture will be managed to provide similar grazing pressure across all treatments, and samples of selected pea lines will be subjected to laboratory tests known to provide information regarding potential nutritive value for livestock. Forage and grain samples will be analyzed for dry matter and ash, crude protein (Leco FP-528)and digestibility (Filter bag technique; Daisy digestion system). Forage samples will be analyzed for neutral and acid detergent fiber (Filter bag technique; Ankom analyzer).

    SA-10343 Medic is currently under seed increase under the direction of Jim Krall. Dr. Krall will coordinate sowing of all annual crops, and use standard research methodologies in the collection of data and analysis to measure annual crop performance and livestock utilization. It is expected that winter wheat protein content and yield, grain pea yield, and medic and forage pea DM production (prior to and after grazing, using grazing exclosures) will be measured. Grain production, forage production, and livestock weight gain data will all be collected each year, and production data, as well as all inputs, will be included in the final economic analysis.

    Perennial pasture will also be established as one of the treatments, representing a common practice in the area. The perennial pasture treatment will just be established within the 3-year timeframe, potentially requiring re-submission. At the end of the 3 year period, Paul Meiman will evaluate all perennial pastures, providing estimates of forage production and conservative stocking rates. Species composition by weight will also be determined . Within the perennial pasture, an appropriate number of plots will be randomly established. Within each plot, all current year's above ground vegetation will be clipped to ground level, separated by species or functional group, oven dried at 50-60 degrees C to a constant weight and then weighed. Clipped material will also be used to determine total standing crop (current year's above ground production). Ground cover will be determined by randomly establishing an appropriate number of transects in the perennial pasture. Along each transect, ground cover will be determined using the point intercept method.

    The economic analysis comparing the traditional dryland wheatlfallow system vs. alternative
    legume crop and cattle grazing rotations will be conducted by James Sedman and James Jacobs. This will be accomplished by developing enterprise budgets, showing per unit costs and returns for alternative crop and livestock enterprises. Specifically, input and machinery costs for respective field operations will be computed throughout the production cycle. At the next stage, individual enterprise budgets will be combined to evaluate each system with respect to singlepoint estimates of profitability for year-to-year product price and yield variation. These results will be examined in the context of appropriate probability distributions with a monte carlo @RISK simulation approach. The economic analysis will be completed on the alternative
    legume crop and cattle grazing winter wheat rotation, and the traditional winter wheatlfallow
    system rotations during the grant period. An economic analysis will also provide the kamework
    for future evaluation of the established pasture that will be compared to the traditional and
    alternative crop rotation 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.