Back around 2004, Trevor Atchison discovered a unique way of getting a crop from a neighbour’s field without either planting it or paying rent.
It was an alfalfa field and Atchison, a cattle producer near Pipestone in western Manitoba, needed feed for his beef cows. So he cut and baled standing forage from the field, paid the neighbour for it, took the bales home and fed them to his cattle.
Atchison didn’t pay rent for the arrangement. The other farmer simply grew the forage and Atchison bought the hay standing.
It sounds straightforward but there’s more to it than that. More than just an ordinary swap, Atchison and his neighbour were carrying out an integrated crop/livestock system benefiting both farms.
“It allowed us to grow forages on somebody else’s land,” Atchison says. “It certainly allowed us to expand our operation. We were wintering 500 cows and now we’re at 800.”
Another benefit for Atchison was the added soil nutrients left behind by the grazing cattle in the form of manure.
Of course, there were benefits for the neighbour too. On top of cash for the forage, there was also erosion control from a perennial crop, and soil nitrogen when the forage stand was finally broken up and seeded to grain.
“It’s a win-win all round,” Atchison says.
Although the arrangement between the two is no longer in effect, Atchison says he’d do it again if the opportunity came along.
“It works for a producer who doesn’t have the forage base or the land base,” he says. “When you need excess feed, you have it secured. You know you’re going to get it if you’ve agreed in the spring to buy it standing. You don’t have to look for feed.”Atchison and a few other farmers are involved in informal partnerships as a way of adding diversity to their farms by sharing crops and livestock. The livestock producer grows a hay crop on a grain farm while the grain farmer gets the benefit of a multi-species hay mix on his land.
It’s a new concept and not many producers are doing it right now. Glenn Friesen, a Manitoba Agriculture forage specialist, had trouble finding enough participating farmers for a panel discussion at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon last January (Atchison was one).
But even though numbers are small, Friesen believes mixed crop-livestock systems are an idea whose time has come.
“I think the tables are turning,” he says. “There’s more interest in it than there was five to 10 years ago.”
Although integrated crop-livestock systems are probably as old as farming itself, North American farmers today mostly tend toward specialization. But recent trends in agriculture are starting to rekindle interest in reintegrating the two, says Martin Entz, a University of Manitoba plant scientist and a supporter of integrated crop and livestock systems.
In a paper by Entz and two other colleagues in Agronomy Journal, the authors argue that concerns over natural resource degradation, farm profitability, long-term sustainability and increasing regulation of intensive livestock operations have sparked curiosity about integrated crop-livestock systems.
The potential benefits, both environmental and economic, are significant, the authors say.
“Integrated crop-livestock systems could foster diverse cropping systems, including the use of perennial and legume forages, which could be grown in selected areas of the landscape to achieve multiple environmental effects,” the article states.
“(F)armers should expect that adoption of integrated crop-livestock systems would enhance both profitability and environmental sustainability of their farms and communities.”
Integrated systems can occur regionally among several farms or within individual farms. Atchison says he knows of a producer in Saskatchewan who has grain farmers dump piles of chaff on his land for cows to feed on during the winter. Entz says another Saskatchewan producer, who has been intercropping for years, uses cattle to harvest biomass from cover crops.
There are stories about producers who actually swap land for a few years, thus co-operating to improve soil health and fertility. However, Friesen feels these examples are relatively rare. More often, a livestock producer will rent land from a grain farmer to plant his own hay on it.
One agronomic advantage of an integrated system is that it changes the weed cycle. Hay fields have a lot of perennial weeds (e.g. dandelions) while annual fields contain annual weeds. Friesen says growing a perennial crop such as alfalfa in an annual field renders the annual weeds less able to compete. As a result, the annual weed seed bank gets depressed. According to Entz’s paper, 80 per cent of farmers surveyed in Manitoba and Saskatchewan saw fewer weeds after the forage phase of the rotation.
As for economic advantages, Friesen says growing a legume forage crop like alfalfa can add 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the soil — a boost for grain crops seeded after the stand is taken out.
Back on the livestock farm, the producer gains a nutrient advantage in the form of manure deposited by cattle feeding on the hay from the grain farm.
“Research has shown that if you really want to put things in overdrive, you need to put the hoof on the ground to apply the manure,” Friesen says. “That’s when you get the benefits of nutrient cycling, which multiplies the life of the soil.”
Entz, a longstanding proponent for organic agriculture, says organic farming could be a springboard for integrated systems. He sees organic farmers making arrangements with beef producers to custom-graze green manure instead of turning it into the soil. Entz says the cost of plowing down green manure can be $200 an acre. But, according to one economic analysis, grazing it instead can show a $30 an acre profit from the live weight gain of the grazing animal.
“This is integration,” says Entz. “The grain farmer stays the grain farmer and the livestock farmer remains the livestock farmer. But they’re sharing resources in a common purpose.”
The bottom line seems to be that adopting integrated systems can enhance not only the sustainability of farms but their profitability as well. So why aren’t more farmers doing it?
Friesen says one reason is that integrating systems requires a long-term investment. Moving perennial crops into a grain farm takes several years to see a financial and environmental return. Meanwhile, the average farmer these days is close to 60 years old and looking to retire.
“It’s tough for them to invest in a five-year perennial field if they know they’ll be out of it in a few years and they want to have buyers ready when they put their farm on the market,” says Friesen.
Advocates of integrated systems insist they’re not trying to recreate the past when most farms were mixed operations with both crops and livestock. Instead, they see integration as a practical approach to the problem of land constraints.
“We’re not trying to recapture something that’s long gone,” says Entz. “But there are grain farmers who want to increase the scope of their enterprises but find it hard to buy more land because of availability and price. So, how about integrating? You can get involved in the livestock sector, even if you don’t own the animals.”