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Integrating livestock into a sustainable cropping system

Rationale: Continued use of short-term crop rotations using corn-soybean in Illinois may not be sustainable. As a consequence, farmers need viable production alternatives. If there are more options for farmers, there is a better probability that agricultural and community systems can remain viable and sustainable.

But, before farmers can make objective decisions about alternative, sustainable agricultural practices, they need sound information from replicated, long-term research conducted at realistic farm-size spatial scales, rather than short-term studies done on small test plots.

The project's principal investigator is Ben Tracy, assistant professor of agroecology at the University of Illinois . He said that the short-term crop rotations have been profitable but have had negative consequences, too, like reducing soil organic matter and increasing soil erosion and the need for more external inputs like fertilizer and pesticide.

Tracy said that an extended rotation using pasture may be a good alternative for farmers. For one thing, using extended pasture rotations with livestock diversifies the farming system and lessens reliance on fertilizer, pesticide and fossil fuels.

Description: Farmland at the Dudley Smith Farm will be used in a unique multi-disciplinary study involving research scientists, extension agents and stakeholders. A farming system consisting of extended pasture rotations with livestock integrated into conservation based row crop production will be established. Teams will measure and compare various agroecological attributes associated with this system. Costs and revenues will be analyzed as well as how this type of agricultural system would affect the local communities within and surrounding Christian County .

The field experiment will be similar to a small demonstration project at the Dudley Smith farm involving pasture integrated into a corn-small grains cropping system which has already shown great potential.

This new project will encompass a much larger area than the demonstration project and consist of four types of land management:

  1. extended rotations of cool season pasture
  2. permanent pasture of native, warm season grasses
  3. winter grazing on a small grain-corn rotation with cover crops
  4. conventional corn-soybean rotation with no grazing (for comparison)

Tracy believes that it is essential that the different types of management systems be replicated across the farm. "This replication will allow us to validate our results and give us greater confidence in explaining the different trends in the data. Without replication," he said, "any conclusions about the sustainability of this system will be pure speculation."

The size of each of the treatments is also important to the project as they attempt to mimic the production scale that most farms will use for this type of agriculture. The treatments will vary in size from 5 to 40 acres.

Analysis: The project will be broken into three separate, yet integrated, components including:

  • agroecology
  • economics
  • community perspectives.

Some of the agroecology attributes compared will be soil fertility, soil structure, water quality, livestock performance and pest abundance, among others. The economic analysis is intended to compare and contrast the economic value of a conventional short-term crop rotation and a cropland-pasture system that involves extended rotations. And finally, the project will evaluate how an alternative agricultural system like this one will affect local and nearby communities.