Written by Laura Paine. A version of this article appeared in PD Extra, Progressive Dairyman and In Practice Magazine.
Aldo Leopold is one of my favorite ecological thinkers. Leopold was an internationally recognized ecologist and conservationist who lived and worked all over the world, but whose work was particularly inspired by the landscape of the farm he owned along the Wisconsin River. Although I grew up in the corn country of central Illinois, I was drawn as a young adult to this landscape and have made Wisconsin my home for going on 40 years.
Over those years, I watched the agriculture of these two adjacent states evolve in very different directions, largely as a result of livestock. From a shared history of diversified livestock and cropping agriculture, Wisconsin evolved toward dairy and Illinois evolved toward cash grain, with profoundly different ecological results. Leopold argued for a holistic view of conservation that placed humans and our animals squarely within the ecosystem. Livestock are one of the most effective tools for returning to a harmonious balance and farming for land health. Using the contrasting agriculture of Wisconsin and Illinois, I’ll illustrate at least 10 reasons why every farmer should include livestock in their system.
1. Mother Nature farms with animals
Sir Albert Howard captured the importance of livestock in agricultural systems in his 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament. In it, he expresses one of the foundational principles of organic and regenerative agriculture. The template for ecologically sound, efficient, regenerative farming is modelled in nature. If we pattern our farming systems as closely as possible to the natural ecosystem, we are more likely to benefit from the synergies and mutual relationships that make natural systems so efficient. We’re not looking to maximize yield or profit; we’re looking to optimize the functioning of our farm ecosystem.
Nature’s farming system creates a diverse, stable community of plants and animals that efficiently captures the sun’s energy, cycles nutrients and conserves water. Across the planet, she has created climax ecosystems that are exquisitely suited to the climate and soils of the location where they are found. Every niche is filled; every resource is used and recycled over and over again. The agriculture of the Corn Belt with its emphasis on annual crops is an invitation to nature to fill in the gaps – the empty niches – and to move the system back toward the stable tall grass prairie that once existed there. The more we can shape our agroecosystems in nature’s image, based on what nature “wants to be,” the less energy and resources we expend trying to stop the inevitable process of succession.
2. Capture more sunlight
Farming is fundamentally about harvesting sunshine, so if we farm with the goal of maximizing the capture of the sun’s energy on our land, then all subsequent steps in the chain of production will have more to work with. Annual cropping systems that dominate in my neighboring state of Illinois are one of the big missed opportunities when it comes to capturing the sun’s energy. On 21 million acres of Illinois soil, crops are planted in May and ready to harvest by September, leaving the ground devoid of living plants nearly 70 percent of the time over the two-year rotation. Bringing forage crops into the rotation can bring the proportion of bare ground down to 30 percent over a four-year rotation. Then there is perennial pasture, which can maximize energy capture. In Illinois, 80 percent of the cropland is corn or soybeans; in Wisconsin, it’s 43 percent.
The difference is livestock, and the hay and pasture needed to feed them. If you think of this on a continental scale – over 90 million acres of annual crops nationwide – you can imagine how much ecosystem productivity is lost, how much organic matter storage is missed and how many calories of the sun’s energy are wasted, just warming bare ground.
Every farm has odd areas and corners that are unsuitable for conventional crops. In fact, between Wisconsin and Illinois, there are nearly 10 million acres of land in farms that are not utilized for crops. Why not manage the vegetation in these areas using livestock? On steep slopes, brushy woodlots or marshy areas, carefully managed cattle, goats, sheep and even pigs and poultry can utilize this vegetation and turn it into meat and milk for our consumption and manure for fertilizer, helping convert those calories captured on your farm into food and organic matter.
3. Fix atmospheric nitrogen
Until industrial nitrogen fertilizer production began in the early 20th century, nitrogen-fixing legumes and other species provided our only access to that all-important nutrient. Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, but it exists in a form that is unusable by life. The mutualistic relationship between legumes and rhizobial bacteria has historically provided the planet’s primary means of converting this nutrient into a form that is available to plants and animals. A plowed down crop of alfalfa can provide 150 pounds per acre or more of nitrogen – all that subsequent crops need for the next one to three years. Leguminous crops like soy and fava beans contribute nitrogen, as do some cover crops, but systems with livestock have the best opportunities for taking advantage of this free resource. Wisconsin’s 1.7 million acres of alfalfa produce 255 million pounds of nitrogen a year in addition to feed for 3.5 million head of beef and dairy cattle.
4. Enhance nutrient cycling
Both organic and biodynamic farming embrace the concept of the farm as an organism – with the goal of creating a closed system in which nutrients are recycled internally with little waste or need for external purchased inputs. Livestock serve to optimize internal nutrient cycling on the farm. If the farm can be structured so that animal waste is food for crops and crop waste is food for animals, mineral cycles and nutrient exchange will be slowed and the system will more closely simulate an efficient and stable natural ecosystem.
If we compare nutrient cycling on a Wisconsin dairy farm versus an Illinois cash grain farm, the difference that livestock makes becomes clear. An Illinois cash grain farm might grow 300 acres of corn and 200 acres of soybeans, with inputs of $12,000 worth of nitrogen fertilizer, plus another $49,000 in other crop inputs. At the end of the season when the grain is harvested and sold, a total of more than 70,000 pounds of nitrogen, 23,000 pounds of phosphorus and 23,000 pounds of potassium are exported off the farm.
The system draws energy and nutrients from distant places, transforms them into grain and distributes them to other distant places, all at great expense in terms of energy, resources and soil health. In contrast, a Wisconsin dairy might have 100 acres of pasture, 200 acres of corn and 200 acres of alfalfa hay. Between manure from the cattle and the plowed down alfalfa, the farm has no need for nitrogen fertilizer, and inputs of herbicides and pesticides are reduced. The corn and hay are fed to the cattle, keeping those nutrients cycling on-farm, and a comparatively small proportion of energy and nutrients is exported off the farm in the form of milk and meat.
5. Improve soil health
Soil health is the foundation of regenerative agriculture, and the soil microbiome – the life of the soil – is the foundation of soil health. Creating a habitat that allows soil microbes to thrive is made much easier with the perennials associated with livestock systems. The four keys to enhancing the diversity and functionality of the soil microbiome are less soil disturbance, more plant diversity, living roots year-round and continuous soil cover. The diverse, perennial plant community of a pasture provides a perfect environment for a healthy soil microbiome. On the continuum from annual cropping systems and perennial pasture, the more forage crops you can incorporate into your rotation, the more closely you will simulate the conditions needed for a healthy soil community.
A big part of keeping soil healthy is protecting it from erosion. Soil erosion is still the most serious threat to soil productivity worldwide. The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates soil losses to wind and water erosion at 75 billion tons per year. Since intensive tillage based agriculture began 150 years ago, we have lost half of the planet’s topsoil. Research conducted on farms in Wisconsin measured soil losses from a spectrum of systems. The cash grain rotation lost the most soil at 2.8 tons per acre per year. The dairy rotation with three years of hay followed by one year of corn lost just under a ton per acre per year. And well-managed pastures lost an almost unmeasurable 58 pounds per acre per year.
6. Diversify your crop rotation
Diverse crop rotations are required under the organic standard, and cropping system diversity is beneficial to all farmers regardless of whether their operations are organic or not. The longer and more diverse a cropping system is, the more effective it is at interrupting insect life cycles, suppressing soil borne plant diseases, controlling weeds, preventing soil erosion, building organic matter, fixing nitrogen and increasing biodiversity. Adding forages is an easy way to diversify a crop rotation. A two- or three-year crop of alfalfa hay is a significant benefit on a larger operation. Even if you don’t raise livestock yourself, finding a livestock farmer to partner with can ensure a market for grain and hay crops, and give you the benefits of including the forage in your rotation.
Several large confinement dairies and cash grain farms in Wisconsin are creating such partnerships. The farms share a set of equipment. The dairy gains a secure source of feed for their animals, grown to their specifications, and the cash grain farmer gains a valuable crop to diversify their rotation and manure from the dairy, providing them with a savings in fertilizer and pesticide costs. And both farms have moved themselves along the continuum of practices toward a more regenerative agricultural system.
7. Invite biodiversity onto your farm
Biodiversity is an important concept in holistic management as well as in organic farming. Supporting biodiversity through a mixed crop and livestock system can yield many benefits in addition to those listed in the last section. Many forage crops can serve a dual purpose: Wildflowers, “weeds,” forage legumes and other plant species can provide habitat and food for multiple beneficial species.
Many farmers are setting aside acres for pollinator habitat to support production of fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Pollinators provide an estimated $29 billion in value to U.S. farms. Pollinator habitat happens naturally, and on many more acres, when forage crops such as clover and alfalfa are part of the cropping system.
The same habitat that supports pollinators also supports natural enemies to crop and livestock pest insects. In an ecologically healthy cropping system, natural enemies can control 33 percent or more of pest damage.
8. Diversify/stack your enterprises
For direct market growers, the single most labor intensive and costly part of the business in both time and resources is marketing. We may not realize how much time and energy we invest in marketing and customer relations. That’s why it’s so effective to stack enterprises. Going out and getting a new customer costs a lot; selling an additional product to the same customer just makes a world of sense. Many direct market producers are capitalizing on this fact, knowing the customer who buys their CSA box is likely to be eager to buy their chicken, eggs, pork or beef.
This is another opportunity for partnering. Even if you don’t want to raise the livestock yourself, perhaps partnering with a neighbor is an option. That way you can share customer lists, sell more of both farms’ products and share manure and other services livestock can provide. Stacking enterprises is also an effective risk management strategy for larger farms. Many cash grain farmers in Wisconsin also finish steers, and many dairy and beef operations have cash grain enterprises. Having income streams from both livestock and crops can provide flexibility to adapt to changing markets.
9. Building your community
To rebuild a livestock sector in a state like Illinois requires a community effort. Losing its livestock farms also meant losing all of the support businesses like large animal veterinarians, meat processors, equipment dealers and sale barns, as well as markets for hay and straw. Most importantly, they have lost the culture of animal agriculture. Without a community of peers, a single livestock producer will struggle to survive. But, with a few pioneers, that culture can be rebuilt, and partnering can be a big part of that transformation. The local food movement brings many opportunities for farmers to partner to bring their products to an eager community of local eaters. Building a community on the basis of sharing the benefits of livestock can support everyone’s triple bottom line, providing economic and environmental benefits in addition to enriching the lives of all those involved.
10. The human-animal connection
Ecology is a science focused on understanding relationships among the physical and biological components of the ecosystem. As farmers, we deal every day with three types of ecological relationships: predation, competition and parasitism. However, one of the most important but perhaps least appreciated ecological relationship in agriculture is mutualism, a relationship in which both species benefit.
The domestication of livestock can be viewed as a fundamentally mutualistic relationship between humans and the plant and animal species that produce our food. In his book, Covenant of the Wild, Stephen Budiansky paints a compelling picture of how both humans and the domesticated species benefit from association with one another. In his words, “Domestication was not an act of exploitation, but a brilliantly successful evolutionary strategy that has benefited humans and animals alike.” In this view, animal species chose to associate with humans, and in exchange for providing food, fiber and labor for humans, they received a safe, relatively comfortable life and an improved chance at replacing themselves by producing offspring.
This long relationship we’ve had with livestock is one of the most important reasons why we should consider livestock as a part of our farming systems. Over tens of thousands of years, our species has developed a fundamental need to have them in our lives. Having that direct relationship with the animals that nourish us both physically and emotionally is a connection of great significance, largely unrealized by the vast majority of non-farming humans. Raising livestock teaches us responsibility, compassion for life and gives us a connection with the planet in a way that nothing else can.
Laura Paine is a grass farmer and Outreach Coordinator with Grassland 2.0