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Integrate Crops and Livestock

14 spoke wheel

The fourteenth spoke is crop and livestock integration. The trend in agriculture has been to separate crop and livestock production. Farmers who include animals as part of the farm operation are more likely to adopt cover crops for manure and compaction management, and as a possible feed for ruminant animals (See the figure to the right). Further, manure from ruminant animals is a great soil amendment to improve soil health in cropland. More intensive crop rotations are possible with Reintegrating livestocklivestock on the farm because crops can be grazed or harvested early for green chop, silage, or hay. Some Pennsylvania farmers can triple crop in one year by integrating crops and animals. Crop diversity tends to be greater on animal farms because of the nutritional needs of the animals. However, the animal and crop enterprises are usually separated, even if present on the same farm.

Farmers from different parts of the world, including some innovators in Pennsylvania, have shown that integrating grazing ruminant livestock and crop production can have advantages:

  • Increased profits due to reduced costs and increased revenue. For example, grazing animals on crop residue and cover crops results in a new income stream and better land utilization.
  • Reduced risk through diversification of enterprises. The farm becomes less sensitive to price fluctuations in one commodity and to weather variability because crops are not all grown at the same time of the year.
  • Easier pasture renovation after annual crops. By rotating to an annual (cover) crop it is possible to completely eradicate the old unproductive stand so that a clean, improved perennial pasture can be established.
  • Increased whole herd-carrying capacity for graziers. Some perennial forages produce little during the summer heat. By including summer crops or summer annual forage mixes such as sorghum, sudangrass, or their hybrids, grazing corn, sunflower, sunn hemp, cowpea, forage soybeans, buckwheat, and others, the farmer will have higher productivity. Some winter annuals start growth early in the spring, providing pasture at a time when perennial forages are not yet productive.
  • Decreased fertilizer needs due to the effective use of manure and urine in intensive grazing operations and integration of legumes in the crop rotations.
  • Decreased crop disease, weed and pest pressure through the increased diversity.
  • Improved soil health because of the rotations of annuals and perennials, grasses, legumes, and forbs; the manuring, urinating, and salivating of the animals; and trampling of part of the crop residue into the soil when ultra-high density grazing is used. The diversity of root systems and symbiotic relationships of crops, bacteria, and fungi stimulate soil microbial activity and aggregate stability.