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Integrating Sheep into Organic Production

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 researchers.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA 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.

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 suggest that grazing sheep saves 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.

“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.”

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,” said Bekkerman. “The study also provided us with alternative ideas of how to manage cropping systems, with the potential for sustainability and entrepreneurship.”

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This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.