Montana State University

MSU organic farming study finds diverse benefits using sheep

March 18, 2015 -- Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service

Using domestic 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 MSU and North Dakota State University faculty members. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Westbrook.

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Using domestic 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 Montana State University and North Dakota State University faculty members.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term United States 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, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences who is part of the research team.

Miller said that in a typical organic farming system, tillage is used to terminate cover crops and to get rid of unwanted weeds. However, frequent mechanical tilling can disrupt 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 domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms.

Early project results suggested that grazing sheep saved 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, MSU 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.”

The project evaluates an organic farming operation, largely because the organic market is one of the fastest growing markets in the food industry. According to MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics Assistant Professor Anton Bekkerman, American consumers spend about $30 billion on organic foods each year.

“Montana is the third largest producer of organic crop and livestock in the United States, 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 varied fields that include agronomy, weed ecology, animal and range sciences, community development, political science, entomology, soil science and agricultural economics. 

“We are approaching this perspective not from a sole discipline; we are looking at a system-level approach,” said Fabian Menalled, MSU Extension weed ecologist. “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.”

The project will continue to be housed at several of MSU’s College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s affiliated research farms, including the Fort Ellis Experiment Station west of Bozeman, a historic U.S. Cavalry fort turned into a livestock teaching and research farm. 

MSU is the largest land-grant university in Montana, and the MSU College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station are charged with delivering cutting-edge agricultural research for the state’s public.

For more information on the study, contact:

Patrick Hatfield, animal scientist, hatfield@montana.edu or 994-7952;
Perry Miller, agro-ecologist, pmiller@montana.edu or 994-5431; or
Anton Bekkerman, agricultural economist, anton.bekkerman@montana.edu or 994-3032.
Paul Lachapelle, community development specialist, paul.lachapelle@montana.edu or 994-3620.

A video to accompany this story is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5w25UgWMTs&feature=youtu.be.

Contact: Fabian Menalled, menalled@montana.edu or (406) 994-4783