Researchers developing system combining cattle grazing with crop production

Researchers developing system combining cattle grazing with crop production

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It can be difficult for beginning farmers to get started because they may not own the land or may need to work within a family member's existing system to start their own operation.

James MacDonald, associate professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is leading a large interdisciplinary team of scientists that have identified an opportunity to increase the number of young cattle producers in the state by developing a system that combines cattle grazing with existing crop production.

"This way, current farmers could add cow-calf production without a major impact on farming acres," MacDonald said.

The overarching goal of the team's research is to help all producers maximize land use efficiency, improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are making the best use of our resources as population growth occurs," he said.

James MacDonald
James MacDonald, associate professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

The team is also investigating whether cover crop benefits are retained when used for livestock forage, which has not been researched much.

"Cover crops are a long-term investment to improve soil health and reduce erosion, but they can be difficult for producers to pay for," MacDonald said. "If producers can graze cattle on cover crops, they could increase land efficiency and mitigate costs."

Producers have an important role in this project by participating in surveys and focus groups to gather input about how they make decisions. Research outcomes will help farmers and ranchers understand which practices will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while efficiently producing food in a diversified system.

"Now we have the technology to measure greenhouse gases much more accurately, and we can relate that to food production," MacDonald said. "We can determine the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent per calories of food produced per acre. We can measure how much greenhouse gas is emitted to make a 6-ounce steak."

Other team members include Tala Awanda, Agricultural Research Division; Simanti Banerjee and Jay Parsons, Department of Agricultural Economics; Humberto Blanco and Daren Redfearn, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture; Mary Drewnoski and Galen Erickson, Department of Animal Science; Jane Okalebo and Andy Suyker, School of Natural Resources; and George Burba, LI‑Cor Biosciences.

The $2.4 million project includes a $1 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Office of Research and Economic Development matched FFAR's support. The Platte River High-Plains Aquifer Long-term Agroecosystems Research Network is also a partner.