Sheep convey diverse benefits to organic farmingSheep convey diverse benefits to organic farming
March 27, 2015
USING domesticated sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to researchers at Montana State University and North Dakota State University.
The preliminary results are from the first two years of a long-term U.S. Department of Agriculture research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, Montana State professor of land resources and environmental sciences who is part of the research team.
Miller said in a typical organic farming system, tillage is used to terminate cover crops and to get rid of weeds. However, frequent mechanical tilling can disrupt the soil structure and reduce organic matter, ultimately harming the success and growth of future crops and costing farmers money.
"There's one major downfall in organic farming, and that's soil erosion, which is related directly to tillage," Miller said. "This project targets that vulnerability. We've designed a system that lets us engage grazing to reduce tillage by more than half."
Instead of using traditional tilling machinery, Miller said the project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domesticated sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. The researchers discovered that an integrated cropping system that uses sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way to reduce tillage for certified organic farms.
Early project results suggest that grazing sheep saves money on tilling costs. The simulated farming operation also made money when the lambs were sold for processing after grazing cover crops.
In providing alternative practices to organic and non-organic ranch and farming operations, the project also makes a case for a closer relationship between livestock and crop producers, said Patrick Hatfield, Montana State animal and range sciences professor who is part of the research team.
"Using sheep as the central tool in an integrated system like this is unique because it looks at agro-ecosystem management from a holistic perspective," Hatfield said. "Our study is unique in that it's bridging farm systems and ranch systems in an enterprise-level manner and finding very real economic and agronomic benefits."
According to Montana State department of agricultural economics assistant professor Anton Bekkerman, U.S. consumers spend about $30 billion on organic foods each year.
"Montana is the third-largest producer of organic crops and livestock in the U.S., and this study is looking at how organic food can be produced and brought to market in an efficient and cost-effective way," Bekkerman said. "The study also provided us with alternative ideas of how to manage cropping systems, with the potential for sustainability and potential entrepreneurship."
The multidisciplinary project team involves faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from such varied fields as agronomy, weed ecology, animal and range sciences, community development, political science, entomology, soil science and agricultural economics.
Montana State Extension weed ecologist Fabian Menalled said instead of looking at the issue from "a sole discipline, we are (taking) a system-level approach. Cropping systems can get complex in terms of interactions of plants with soil organisms, crops and crop pests, and farmers need to find a balance between economic return, productivity and sustainability. This study speaks to every one of those factors."
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