Integrate animals into farms as a regenerative agriculture practice to improve soil health, sequester carbon dioxide, and reduce industrialized meat and dairy production.
For centuries, the cultivation of crops was partnered with raising animals, generating food, income, clothing, and sources of power for farmers. Manure helped maintain healthy soil. A century ago, most farms raised cattle, pigs, poultry, and fish integrated with crop production. However, industrial agriculture segregated crops and animals to promote specialization, boost efficiency, and increase commodification. This split led to the development of crop monocultures and industrialized meat and dairy production, including the use of confinement facilities and feedlots, with negative consequences for human, animal, and planetary health. Ending this separation and reintegrating animals into regenerative agriculture, including aquatic systems, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, restore ecosystem health, and diversify farm economies.
Learn about the benefits of integrating animals into farm operations. For centuries, traditional and Indigenous societies have understood the close relationships between crops and animals, including fowl and fish. Today, these regenerative relationships are core to modern agroecology (see Agroecology Nexus). For example, tree crops, pasture, and livestock can be combined ecologically in mutually beneficial ways (see Silvopasture Nexus). Industrial agriculture, however, separates crops from animals to the detriment of both. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) harm animal health and are a major source of greenhouse gases. Reintegrating animals into crop production—also called mixed farming—offers a variety of benefits, including:
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture is a primary source of greenhouse gases globally, especially animal production, including nitrous oxide from manure. In contrast, regenerative systems can cut emissions. Synthetic fertilizers are not required, and manure is deposited on the land (via the animals) or composted.
- Builds topsoil. Integrating livestock with crops is a quick way to build topsoil and maintain soil health. Livestock mix their urine and manure into soil with their hooves as they graze. Chicken manure and fish waste make nutritious fertilizer when composted. Regenerative agriculture with grazing increases soil organic matter and biology and enhances natural cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water, all of which boost beneficial insects, soil microbes, and fungi (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus).
- Stores carbon in soils. The combination of well-managed grazing with regenerative crops production can boosts soil carbon faster than crop systems that employ no grazing at all.
- Produces nutritious food. Healthy soil makes nutrients available to plants and ultimately to humans. In addition, well-integrated crop/livestock systems provide protein sources such as meat, dairy, and eggs. It can also sustainably intensify food production.
- Restores degraded land. Integrated crop/livestock systems can build soil health on degraded landscapes more quickly than crops or grazing alone (see Degraded Land Restoration Nexus).
- Economic vitality. Integration can diversify economic resources for farmers, supporting local communities. Examples include Ghana, Nebraska, and Europe. Other examples are here.
Support animal integration by buying products from farmers and ranchers who practice regenerative agriculture or from retailers who support them. Purchasing items signals other producers to adopt similar practices and goals (see Eating Plants Nexus and Agroecology Nexus for more suggestions).
- Look for farms in your area that integrate livestock and crops. The combinations can be varied and not well advertised, so look carefully at websites or call farmers directly to find out more. Examples: Polyface Farm in Virginia and Brown Farm in North Dakota.
- More generally, grass-fed livestock and dairy farms are examples of regenerative agriculture and may feature crop integration. Here is a detailed directory of grass-fed farms and ranches in the United States, Canada, and internationally. Buy directly from the producer, if possible.
- Wildlife and bird-friendly beef, such as Audubon’s Conservation Ranching program and Blue Nest Beef, are often produced by regenerative ranchers. Here is a buying guide from the Audubon Society.
- Check your grocery store for grass-fed food. Suppliers include Panorama Meats, Farm Foods Market, Crowd Cow, and U.S. Wellness Meats.
- Eat at a restaurant that supports agroecological and regenerative agriculture. Here is a list of restaurants from Zero Foodprint.
Take a tour of a regenerative farm. One of the best ways to understand the role livestock can play in regenerative food systems is to visit a farm or ranch. Many offer tours, including White Oak Pastures farm in Georgia, Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota, and farms in Costa Rica.
- Agritourism offers opportunities around the world to stay a night or a week on a working farm. Here is a story about how agritourism helps small farms. Here is a search engine for stays in Italy.
Farmers and Ranchers
Learn which animals can be integrated into regenerative crop agriculture. Integration can involve many types of animals, include turkeys, ducks, rabbits, sheep, goats, horses, ostriches, llamas, and fish. In Asia, cattle and goats often graze under plantation trees, such as rubber coconut, providing weed control while fertilizing the soil. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a primer on mixed farming. Regenerative practices that can help facilitate crop/livestock integration include: organic no-till, cover crops, agroforestry, silvopasture, perennial crops, composting, keyline and permaculture, and multispecies grazing. Examples include:
- Grazing sheep in walnut orchards, Sierra Orchards in California.
- Grazing sheep in vineyards in Australia, Central Europe, and California.
- Here are three examples of crop/livestock integration from Iowa.
- Here is a study of smallholder farms in Africa using crop/livestock integration.
- Zack Smith, a farmer in Iowa, employs a variation he calls stock cropping.
Learn why animals should be integrated into your farming operation. Integration influences crop production principally by improving soil properties, including increased fertility and reduced erosion. Researchers have seen an overall increase in crop yields and weed control and a decrease in costs when compared to conventional systems. Livestock performance is improved by the nutrient availability provided by grazing in autumn and winter.
- In Asia, the integration of livestock, fish, and crops has proved to be a sustainable system through centuries of experience. Livestock manure can be used to fertilize grass or other plant growth that can also constitute feed for fish. Vegetables can be irrigated from the fishponds, and their residues and by-products can be used for feeding livestock.
- Integrating poultry into crop production can bring a variety of benefits, including nutrient enhancement from chicken manure, pest reduction, and additional income streams.
- Greg Judy’s Green Pastures Farm in Missouri is a model of well-managed grazing and profitability, including the benefits of not having to employ hormone implants, deworming, or insecticides.
- Instead of transporting feed to the farm, livestock can graze on the farm, recycling nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and carbon in the soil.
- Tackle weeds with grazing instead of using an herbicide.
- Grazing cover crops or crop residues after harvest allow farmers to take the livestock off the perennial grasslands earlier in the fall, extending the grass recovery period and providing a higher nutritional diet for livestock.
- Integration allows cattle and sheep to secure their energy needs from plants instead of supplements.
- The regular use of organic amendments such as manure from grazing is an effective way to increase soil organic matter, and with regular use can increase soil fertility and carbon sequestration significantly.
- Regenerative practices prevent erosion by keeping the ground covered and stable with deep plant roots, creating the potential to reduce nitrogen and other excessive nutrient loads entering waterways.
- In a crop/livestock system in which crop residues remain on fields for animals to graze (as opposed to burning them), those residues provide a variety of critical functions: keeping soil covered and cool; helping to hold and filter contaminants from water; and improving the water cycle.
- Integrated crop/livestock systems provide an economically viable farm environment. A study determined that if a farmer converted one third of a thousand-acre conventional corn-soy farm to a grass-based grazing system integrated with diverse crops, they could save $30,000 each year, reduce their emissions and water footprint while generating $98,000 in profit.
- The Rodale Institute conducted a literature review of current research on the different ways crop and livestock integration is beneficial for farmers.
- Here is a How-To Guide to grazing cover crops. Here are educational material on integrated livestock and crop systems from SARE.
Understand how to integrate animals into your farm. Gabe Brown transformed his family’s depleted farm into a biologically rich and productive operation by turning dirt into soil with regenerative agriculture. Brown follows five principles developed by nature over time: (1) Limit physical disturbance of the soil; (2) keep the soil covered at all times; (3) strive for diversity of both plant and animal species; (4) maintain a living root in the soil as long as possible; and (5) integrate animals. There are many ways to integrate animals into crop production. Here are a few:
- Use fall or winter grazing by livestock to convert high-carbon annual crop residue to low-carbon organic material, balancing the carbon/nitrogen ratio necessary for crop yield.
- Spring or summer grazing of plants with short exposure periods followed by long recovery periods allows the plants to regrow and harvest additional sunlight and carbon dioxide (see next section).
- On Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, cattle, chickens, and pigs are rotated through the pastures in a sequence. Cattle are fed hay in the barn during the winter. When the cows are turned out to the pastures in the spring, pigs dig up the barn compost. The carbon-rich compost is subsequently spread on the pastures. Chickens are guided into a pasture after the cattle have moved to the next field, sanitizing and recycling their manure.
- To make integration work properly, the livestock need to be managed in a way that mimics the natural “graze-and-go” behavior of native herbivores. Elements include controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of livestock impact through short-duration rotational grazing. Methods include holistic planned grazing, mob grazing, adaptive high-stock-density grazing, and adaptive multipaddock grazing.
- The Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University, Chico provides multiple resources for farmers and ranchers interested in crop/livestock integration here.
- Here is a guide on integrating poultry into an organic vegetable cropping system.
- For a review of the role livestock can play in reducing their carbon footprint see this article.
Conduct further research on the impacts of animal integration. Research has revealed many links between aboveground plant and animal management and increased carbon storage and nutrient cycling belowground. While the agroecological aspects of integrated crop/livestock systems have received attention from researchers, including its role in addressing food insecurity, the environmental aspects need more attention, including the impact of integration on native wildlife. Other areas for further research include:
- Economic analyses of integrated crop/livestock models are needed. Here is an example from Iowa.
- Implementing technologies that assist with monitoring needs. Emerging technology—sometimes called nature tech (defined in this report)—including the use of drones and satellite imagery to provide data to farmers and others about animal integration into agricultural operations.
- How integration can help boost resilience to climate change, particularly in developing nations.
Create policies and provide support for farmers that encourage animal integration on farms. Administrative bodies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can do more to create a policy environment that encourages farmers to integrate animals into their operations. They can also provide educational and logistical support through their outreach and grant-making programs.
- Here are policies that can boost farmers’ participation in crop/livestock integration.
- This research article discusses policies that should be developed to encourage integration involving various forms of financial and technical support, targeted to different integration types, participants, and project stages.
- This article compares policies in Brazil, New Zealand, and the U.S. that have worked well—and not—to incentivize the adoption of integrated crop/livestock systems.
Integrating Livestock and Crops (63 mins.)
Integrating Livestock with Crops Project (15 mins.)
How to Plan the Perfect Integrated Farming (15 mins.)
Integrated Fish Farming System (12 mins.)
Videos featuring farmer Joel Salatin on animal integration
Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin
How to Think Like a Grazier by Greg Judy
Livestock Integration (66 mins.)
On Livestock Integration (26 mins.)
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