Story by Laura Paine, Amy Fenn and Jane Jewett
Back in the day, diversified farms were the norm—every farm had a mix of livestock, annual crops, and perennial pastures. Though viewed by some as impractical and inefficient in today’s era of specialization, there are sound scientific and economic reasons to pursue diversified farming systems for today’s agriculture. There’s a growing movement of farmers who are reintegrating livestock and crops to recapture some of the economic and environmental benefits they provide. In the Upper Midwest the Match Made in Heaven project is teaming up with innovative crop and livestock farmers to modernize and scale up diversified systems for today’s agriculture.
Match Made in Heaven is about starting conversations, building partnerships, and sharing knowledge on reintegrating livestock and annual cropping systems, for the benefit of both! The three-year, SARE funded project is facilitated by Green Lands Blue Waters and seeks to engage new and existing partners – including Grassland 2.0 – throughout the Upper Midwest.
Just as we’ve seen a trend toward specialization in farming systems, the organizations that farmers belong to and rely on for information have also become specialized. Corn Growers, Soybean Growers, Cattlemen’s Associations and similar groups, by definition, focus on a single commodity rather than the system within which it’s produced. Match Made In Heaven creates a space for these organizations to engage in conversation around how we can best listen to what farmers need and then collaborate on meeting those needs.
Farmers’ interest in soil health has sparked adoption of no-till and cover crops throughout the Midwest. To restore the clean water and healthy soil that we need and want, it is evident that we need a lot more continuous living cover on the landscape. We can only make so much progress with a system dominated by annual crops. Livestock production gives us the tools to diversify crop rotations with annual and perennial forage crops, which bring along with them the benefits of introducing nitrogen fixing legumes and manure that reduce fertility costs, break up pest and weed cycles, and increase soil carbon storage. Adding livestock can also reduce production costs, help diversify income streams, and make room for the next generation in an operation.
Match Made in Heaven’s new infographic explains how integrating crops and livestock can work and why a farmer might want to consider it. Intended as an educational tool for public use, it is downloadable from the Match Made in Heaven website in several forms for online or print use. A second page of the infographic provides a narrative describing the illustration. There is a space for contact information for organizations wishing to use the infographic for their educational programming.
There are significant barriers to making changes to farming operations and the infographic illustrates a continuum of options that allow farmers to take a stepwise approach to livestock integration. At the left-hand side of the infographic, we see a crop farm raising corn for livestock feed, a common scene on dairy and livestock farms throughout the region. Many crop farmers have no interest in owning livestock but could consider a partnership with a nearby confinement livestock operation. Such partnerships can allow both operations to benefit from diversified crop rotations, shared equipment, and consistent relationships for buying and selling crops, feed and fertility.
At the center of the illustration, we see a range of cover crop options for annual systems. Many crop farmers are experimenting with planting single species or diverse cover crop mixes. Why not consider grazing those cover crops in fall or spring? The illustration shows dairy heifers grazing cover crops and crop residue inside a temporary electric fence. This option is increasing in popularity among livestock farmers and can involve partnerships, with livestock farmers gaining from having alternative pasturage for their animals and crop farmers gaining the benefits of manure nutrients.
At the right side of the infographic, we see cattle grazing pasture with diverse perennial forages. Crop and livestock systems benefit from including perennial forages as either permanent pasture or as part of long-term crop rotations. Many farms have rough ground or fields that are not well suited for annual crops, these places can be utilized effectively for livestock grazing during seasons when crop residue and cover crops are not available.
The illustration not only highlights the continuous living cover above ground but also shows what’s going on underground. The bright white, healthy, living roots actively cycle nutrients and hold soil in place. Root structure and rooting depth are other factors depicted. Expanding the time that living roots are in the soil each year contributes to soil health and water quality, nutrient cycling and soil carbon storage.
The infographic presents a picture of both the benefits and challenges of integrated systems. The soil health and environmental benefits of integrating livestock into annual cropping systems are clear and well-documented in the research literature, and there is emerging evidence of economic benefits from reduced production costs and diversified income streams. But these systems can be complex and challenging to manage, increasing labor and financial risk. The Match Made in Heaven project is engaging farmers across the crop and livestock spectrum to learn about the creative methods farmers are devising to integrate their systems. The project will capture their learning and innovation through case studies, field days and a survey distributed through partner organizations.
The case studies will involve one or more farmers from each of the six states involved in the project (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri). They will take a deep dive into the unique approaches these farmers have taken to integrate their systems as well as an in-depth look at the financial synergies in these systems. The survey is being developed this summer and we are engaging farmer organizations to help with identifying important questions to ask as well as to help distribute the survey to their members across the region. The information we gather through the project will help Green Lands Blue Waters, Grassland 2.0, Extension educators; local, state, and federal agencies; and many other organization and farm advisors understand and better serve the needs and aspirations of farmers throughout the region. For more information about the project, contact Laura Paine or Project Coordinator Amy Fenn.