The Impacts of Integrating Livestock into Cropping Systems on Soil Health and Crop Production

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $249,502.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2021
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Devon Ragen
Montana State University

Information Products


  • Agronomic: buckwheat, clovers, wheat
  • Animals: goats, sheep, swine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, manure management
  • Crop Production: cover crops, crop rotation
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, soil analysis, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships

    Proposal abstract:

    Our team of livestock and crop producers, researchers, educators, and extension specialists propose
    a research and education project that documents, disseminates, and demonstrates the impacts of
    incorporating livestock into grain, cover crop, and vegetable garden systems on soil health. We
    will investigate the effects of integrated plant-livestock production by determining impacts on the
    microbial diversity, biochemistry, and compaction of soil, and assess the resulting impacts on soil
    and plant tissue nutrients, and root biomass of cover crops as well as subsequent impacts on crop
    yields and livestock performance in both production farms and a field research environment. These
    biological, agronomic, and livestock responses will be the basis for future enterprise-level
    economic assessment of these diverse systems.
    We propose to conduct a broad-based series of independent studies to compare soil health and
    subsequent crop production in five diverse agricultural systems that include organic livestock,
    vegetable, and cash crop farms, and a university research farm.
    Finally, our project will demonstrate and disseminate not only results but we will also promote our
    integrated approach and develop best management practices led by a partnership between National
    Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and Montana State University (MSU) extension.
    NCAT also manages the USDA ATTRA Project which has provided nationwide outreach and
    education on sustainable agriculture topics for over 28 years.
    Farmers should expect that the adoption of integrated crop–livestock systems will enhance both
    profitability and environmental sustainability of their farms and communities. We expect that
    findings of grazing-influenced relationships among soil microbial communities, soil biochemistry,
    soil health, and crop production will be well received by producers via our MSU and
    NCAT/ATTRA outreach programs. Our project has a high level of interest from a diverse group
    of commercial agricultural producers and high potential for engagement with a variety of
    producers and producer groups.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1) Characterize indices of soil health including: i) soil microbial communities (i.e.,
    microbial diversity and composition), N & P cycling, as well as compaction, cover crop root
    dynamics, and subsequent crop yield and quality response to grazed vs ungrazed treatments by:
    a) Comparing sheep- or cattle-terminated vs tillage-terminated cover crop mixes in:
    i) a 5-crop rotation at MSU’s Fort Ellis Research and Education Center
    ii) small-scale vegetable farm crop residues (Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool)
    iii) large-scale farm fields (Nathan Merrill and Kody Cator)
    b) Comparing sheep and chicken-terminated vs tilled i) cover crop mixes and ii) small-scale
    vegetable farm residues (Strike Farms, Bozeman, MT)
    c) Comparing sheep, hog, and chicken/geese-terminated vs tilled i) cover crop mixes and ii)
    vegetable farm residues (Black Cat Farm, Boulder, CO)
    d) Comparing lamb-finishing (fed and finished with alfalfa pellets) vs tilled organic and notill
    non-organic winter wheat stubble within a common 5-yr crop rotation. The common
    rotation is 1) safflower under-sown to biennial sweet clover, 2) sweet clover cover
    crop/green manure, 3) winter wheat, 4) lentils, and 5) winter wheat (MSU Fort Ellis
    Research and Teaching Center)
    Work will begin May 2017 and will be completed March 2020.
    Objective 2) Write peer reviewed publications and deliver professional presentations to local, state,
    and national scientific audiences regarding grazing-affected soil properties. We will use this
    information in part as the foundation for objective 3.
    Work will begin May 2018 and will be completed March 2020.
    Objective 3) Demonstrate technologies and conduct educational programs by developing and
    delivering extension, on-farm, and web-based outreach programs incorporating the resources of
    NCAT and MSU extension service to illustrate our approach of crop-livestock integration and
    deliver preliminary and final results to producers and consumers. An example of our current multimedia
    outreach can be seen at:
    along with the video link at the end of this article.
    Work will begin March 2018 and will be completed March 2020.
    Objective 4) Collect production and operation data for future economic and energy balance
    evaluation. Collect needed data for economic and energy assessment. We will then seek a
    continuation of this project that focuses on the economic evaluation of three years of biological
    data along with expanded outreach with a solid base of both biological, energy, and economic
    Work will begin March 2019 and will be completed March 2020.

    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.