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Beef, Bugs and More Beef

Planned Grazing May Be Best Tool for Long-Term Sustainability of Former CRP Land

Having the right number of cattle on the right piece of land for the right amount of time for the right reasons may be one of the most powerful tools farmers have to ensure the long-term sustainability — both economic and environmental — of their operations, according to Donald D. Nelson, Extension beef specialist in the WSU Department of Animal Sciences.

“This is a major paradigm shift,” said Nelson. “We’re using grazing as a tool to create a desirable future landscape and sustainable ecosystems. Planned grazing mimics natural cycles, which typically are most effective economically and biologically.”

Nelson spearheaded Beefing Up the Palouse, a demonstration project in eastern Washington, to develop sustainable alternatives for farmers with land soon to come out of the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program. That program pays farmers between $50 and $80 an acre on the Palouse not to grow anything on what is usually marginal or highly erodible farmland in an effort to reduce soil erosion and improve wildlife habitat. Nelson said more than 1.5 million acres in Washington are enrolled in 10- to 15-year CRP contracts. A significant portion of this acreage is nearing the contract end over the next several years, leaving farmers struggling to figure out how to make marginal land profitable. Nelson’s research indicates that science and market conditions now favor several options.

For example, because most CRP land has had no chemical applications for at least a decade, it can be certified organic almost immediately, making it suitable as organic cattle pasture or growing organic hay. Another alternative focuses on rural tourism, such as trail rides, field trials for hunting dogs, or bird or deer hunting preserves. And there is the option of actively using the land to graze cattle, goats or horses in rotation with growing grain or other crops.

All options, however, hinge on improving the land. Because it has been relatively untouched for so long, CRP land often is biologically decadent, having lost some of its ability to store water and support new plant growth. The Beefing Up the Palouse study indicates planned grazing is key to restoring soil fertility, water-holding capacity and wildlife habitat.

Eco-balancing act: the right number of cattle in the right place for the right amount of time may be one of the most powerful tools farmers have to ensure the long-term sustainability -- both economic and environmental -- of their operations.
Eco-balancing act: the right number of cattle in the right place for the right amount of time may be one of the most powerful tools farmers have to ensure the long-term sustainability — both economic and environmental — of their operations.

Conducted on G & L Farms in Adams County, the project entailed grazing 200 to 300 head of cattle on three- to five-acre paddocks for 12 hours at a time. The cattle ate about half of the growth and trampled the rest of it into the ground before being moved to the next paddock. The cattle did not return to the same piece of land until adequate re-growth had occurred.

“To put it simply, planned grazing means having the right number of livestock in the right place at the right time,” said Gregg Beckley, project co-manager and owner of G & L Farms. “The concept comes from [the grazing pattern]  bison that came across the plains where large, concentrated numbers of livestock would be in places for only a short period of time and not return to that same piece of ground for up to a year. High density stock rates for short periods of time in conjunction with an adequate recovery period brings the land back to what Mother Nature intended,” Beckley continued. “The grass will flourish.”

Nelson said one of the key factors to high density grazing is the “graze-trample ratio,” which measures the proportion of forage eaten compared to the amount of forage trampled. “We want the animals to perform well, so the farmer profits,” he explained. “We also want organic matter trampled into the ground to rejuvenate the soil.” In Beefing Up the Palouse, Beckley distributed alfalfa seed, a natural nitrogen fixer, in certain areas, relying on the cattle to push the seeds into the ground.

Nelson characterized knowing when to move livestock from one place to another as “both an art and a science. A lot of it is based on experience, and every piece of land is different,” he said.

But, Nelson emphasized, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” so monitoring the impact of the livestock on the land as well as their overall health is critical to the success of planned grazing. By measuring the weight of animals before and after they graze, a farmer can monitor cattle performance. Measuring ecosystem processes includes looking at a number of variables, including the depth of root systems, the amount of bare ground, biomass production and plant diversity.

If done well, planned grazing absolutely improves the land, Nelson said. On G & L Farms, it increased the fertility and water-holding capacity of every parcel grazed. According to the project’s final report, that potential for far greater productivity could provide returns greater than the current CRP payments, depending on the availability of water and fencing and the knowledge and skill of farmers using the method.

Restoring the land also can mean restoring rural economies, according to Nelson. “A lot of CRP land is owned by absentee landlords or people who have retired off the farm,” he said. “That decreases the economic activity in already struggling communities.” It also means, Nelson added, that the people grazing the cattle will probably not be the landowners, and that long-term lease agreements will be necessary to amortize the cost of fencing and water development.

Nelson hopes the project provides a model that farmers will readily adopt. But, he noted, long-term collaborative working relationships will be key to its success. There are economic, environmental, social and technological components to any sustainable integrated agricultural system, he said, and each of those areas is a complex arena of situations and stakeholders.

Learn more about the Beefing Up the Palouse project by visiting http://bit.ly/aV8Ism.


‘Balanced’ Ecosystems Seen In Organic Ag Better At Controlling Pests

Nature article authors coined the term "evenness" to describe the relatively equal abundance of different species in an ecosystem.
Nature article authors coined the term "evenness" to describe the relatively equal abundance of different species in an ecosystem.

There really is a balance of nature, but as accepted as that thought is, it has rarely been studied. Now WSU researchers writing in the journal Nature have found that more balanced animal and plant communities typical of organic farms work better at fighting pests and growing a better plant.

The researchers looked at insect pests and their natural enemies in potatoes and found organic crops had more balanced insect populations in which no one species of insect has a chance to dominate. And in test plots, the crops with the more balanced insect populations grew better.

“I think ‘balance’ is a good term,” says David Crowder, a post-doctorate research associate in entomology at Washington State University. “When the species are balanced, at least in our experiments, they’re able to fulfill their roles in a more harmonious fashion.”

Crowder and colleagues here and at the University of Georgia use the term “evenness” to describe the relatively equal abundance of different species in an ecosystem. Conservation efforts more typically concentrate on species richness–the number of individual species–or the loss of individual species. Crowder’s paper is one of only a few to address the issue. It is the first to look at animal and fungal communities and at multiple points in the food chain.

The researchers say their results strengthen the argument that both richness and evenness need to be considered in restoring an ecosystem. The paper also highlights insect predator and prey relationships at a time when the potato industry and large French fry customers like McDonald’s and Wendy’s are being pushed to consider the ecological sustainability of different pest-control practices.

Conventional pest-management on farms often leads to biological communities dominated by a few species. Looking at conventional and organic potato farms in central Washington State’s Columbia Basin, Crowder found that the evenness of natural pests differed drastically between the two types of farms. In the conventional fields, one species might account for four out of five insects. In the organic fields, the most abundant species accounted for as little as 38 percent of a field’s insect predators and enemies.

Using field enclosures on Washington State University’s Pullman campus, Crowder recreated those conditions using potato plants, Colorado potato beetles, four insect species and three soil pathogens that attack the beetles. When the predators and pathogens had similar numbers, says Crowder, “we would get significantly less potato beetles at the end of the experiment.”

“In turn,” he adds, “we’d get bigger plants.”

Crowder says he is unsure why species evenness was lower in conventional crops. It could be from different types of fertilization or from insecticides killing some natural enemies more than others.

–Eric Sorensen


Environmental Sustainability of Beef Production Has Improved Considerably over Last 30 Years, WSU Expert Says

Advances in productivity over the past 30 years have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of U.S. beef production.
Advances in productivity over the past 30 years have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of U.S. beef production.

Advances in productivity over the past 30 years have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of U.S. beef production, according to a new study presented today by a WSU researcher.

In “Comparing the environmental impact of the U.S. beef industry in 1977 to 2007,” assistant professor of animal science Jude L. Capper revealed that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights, have significantly reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production and improved its sustainability.

“These findings challenge the common misconception that historical methods of livestock production are more environmentally sustainable than modern beef production,” said Capper in her presentation today at the American Society of Animal Science meeting in Denver.

“It’s important to note that all food production has an environmental impact, but significant improvements in efficiency have clearly reduced the greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impact of beef production,” said Capper. “Contrary to the negative image often associated with modern farming, fulfilling the U.S. population’s requirement for high-quality, nutrient-rich protein while improving environmental stewardship can only be achieved by using contemporary agricultural technologies and practices.”

In 2007, there were 13 percent fewer animals slaughtered than in 1977 (33.8 million vs. 38.7 million), but those animals produced 13 percent more beef (26.3 billion lbs. of beef versus 23.3 billion lbs. in 1977). By producing more beef with fewer resources, Capper found that the total carbon footprint for beef production was reduced by 18 percent from 1977 to 2007.

“As the global and national population increases, consumer demand for beef is going to continue to increase,” Capper says. “The vital role of improved productivity and efficiency in reducing environmental impact must be conveyed to government, food retailers and consumers.”

When compared to beef production in 1977, each pound of beef produced in modern systems used:

  • 10 percent less feed energy
  • 20 percent less feedstuffs
  • 30 percent less land
  • 14 percent less water
  • 9 percent less fossil fuel energy
  • 18 percent decrease in total carbon emissions (methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide)

The study used a whole-system environmental model that integrated all resource inputs and waste outputs within the beef production system, from crop production to beef arriving at the slaughterhouse.

This project was supported by the Beef Checkoff Program through a research grant from state beef councils in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington.

Learn more about animal sciences at WSU by visiting http://bit.ly/aUMvwX.