Nebraska project aims to improve land use efficiency

Team includes members of new Nebraska Beef Systems Research Initiative.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln research team will investigate how to improve land use efficiency through the integration of livestock and crop production systems. The project is funded by a $1 million grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR).

The team, which includes members of a new Nebraska Beef Systems Research Initiative, expects an integrated system -- which overlays cattle grazing with existing crop production systems -- to increase output per acre and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with production. The team will also examine if the benefits of cover crops are retained when they are used for livestock forage.

James C. MacDonald, associate professor of animal science and ruminant nutrition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will lead the team in its investigation of various outputs, including yields, soil health and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the economic feasibility of adopting these new practices.

"It's very difficult for new or young farmers to get started," MacDonald said. "You may not own the land or need to work with a family member's existing system to start your own enterprise. Integrating cattle without disturbing crop production with minimal investment can help young producers get started and stay in agriculture."

The availability of perennial forage for livestock production has decreased as farms move to less diversified systems to grow individual crops, he said. Highly specialized systems, such as monoculture, may be less sustainable than diversified approaches in terms of resource efficiency and long-term profitability.

"Cover crops are a long-term investment to improve soil health and reduce erosion, but they can be difficult for producers to pay for," MacDonald said. "If producers can graze cattle on cover crops, they could increase land efficiency and mitigate costs."

Producers will play a vital role in the research by participating in surveys and focus groups to gather input about how they make decisions. Outcomes of this study will help farmers and ranchers understand which practices will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while efficiently producing food in a diversified system.

The project is supported by FFAR through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for research proposals in one of the foundation's seven challenge areas. The grant is part of the Protein Challenge, which aims to enhance and improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability production of diverse proteins for a growing global population.

“As the population continues to expand, we must find more efficient ways to produce enough food to feed the growing population,” FFAR executive director Sally Rockey said. “FFAR is pleased to support a project that will help efficiently manage resources and provide economic opportunities for American farmers and ranchers.”

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources and the Office of Research & Economic Development matched FFAR's support, resulting in $2.4 million dedicated to this research. The Platte River High-Plains Aquifer Long-term Agroecosystems Research Network is also a partner.

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