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Management practices to improve the sustainability of integrated cattle and grain operations at the Dudley Smith Farm (2013-2015)

Dr. Luis Rodriquez, Principle Investigator, Agricultural & Biological Engineering
Edward Ballard, Dr. Angela Green, Travis Meteer, Dr. Dan Shike, Dr. Maria Villamil

Project History

Through our work with the Dudley Smith Initiative, we have had the opportunity to consider integrated cattle and grain operations in Central Illinois from the perspective of an agroecosystem, and we see the potential to not only positively impact economic performance, but also improve environmental outcomes. The long-term goal of our work is to develop decision support tools for agricultural producers that improve agroecosystem performance by both economic and environmental measures. The objective of this application is to collect data targeting economic benefits of integrated cattle and grain operations in Central Illinois, while building upon the foundation of data and resources previously developed through the Dudley Smith Initiative to consider environmental impacts. Our central hypothesis is that cattle grazing impacts the performance of agroecosystems. If so, there exists an opportunity to manipulate livestock field utilization to take advantage of the positive impacts, while deterring negative impacts. This is based upon our preliminary work using global positioning systems to monitor grazing patterns of cattle in intensively managed permanent pasture, in corn fields, and related studies of agroecosystem performance. Our rationale is that if we can better understand the impacts of livestock grazing on the agroecosystem, then best management strategies can be developed to manipulate livestock grazing to enhance both economic and environmental outcomes.

To study these interactions, our team has developed expertise in global positioning system technology and geospatial analysis tool for analysis of areas of interest within the pasture or field. We have studied cattle grazing in permanent pasture as well as in fields of corn crop residues. We have developed methods for measurement of other agroecosystem-related environmental impacts, including assessment of cattle performance and efficiency, including quantification of cattle greenhouse gas emissions, and assessment of soil characteristics. Our team is comprised of educators, researchers, and extension specialists in engineering, soils, crops and animal sciences.

Current Project

Two specific aims are proposed as follows:

Specific Aim 1

To provide actionable advice to contemporary beef and grain stakeholders in the Midwest. Our current working plan is that we can leverage our direct ties to stakeholders interested in integrated cattle and grain operations to provide data for augmenting the extension and outreach operations existing within the Dudley Smith Initiative.

Specific Aim 2

To provide the foundational hardware, data, and models necessary for consideration of environmental outcomes that may become economically significant in the future for small and medium scale beef cattle and grain operations in the Midwest. Our current working plan involves the continuation of grazing studies and greenhouse gas emissions research for the purpose of developing an understanding of these potential impacts on agroecosystems, and enabling subsequent modeling, analysis, and decision support.

There are a great many different approaches for the cultivation of crops and livestock and the agroecosystems that support them. There are, however, few strategies for the mitigation of nonpoint source pollution caused by agricultural activity. For example, should greenhouse gas balances, or other environmental impacts, be incorporated into the economic models of agroecosystems, it would constitute a fundamental change in how agricultural systems would deliver products to humanity. While in the short term, we anticipate this project will provide the resources to ensure that integrated cattle and grain operations gain maximum economic benefit, in the long-term, we see that environmental outcomes, both positive and negative, will need to be considered as well. It is the work described here that we anticipate will provide the foundation for allowing both economic and environmental outcomes to be considered simultaneously and lead to opportunities for improving agricultural sustainability.