PULLMAN, Wash. – You generally don’t find livestock among the hills in the Palouse region of eastern Washington where grain is grown. But wheat farmers Eric and Sheryl Zakarison are changing that – and making a profit.
On 100 of their 1,300 family-owned acres, they are experimenting with a rather unconventional scheme for the region – growing wheat, peas, perennial grasses like alfalfa and sheep in a tightly integrated system.
The Zakarisons’ integrated livestock operation also buffers them against market risks like an oversupply of grain. And in the absence of direct payments that were eliminated with the 2014 Farm Bill, it adds an income stream.“This year the dockworker slowdown brought the (alfalfa) hay export industry to its knees, and hay prices plummeted,” Eric Zakarison said. “It turned out to be a better year for lambs than alfalfa.”
But diversifying their income streams and boosting profitability isn’t their only motivation for converting to an integrated and organic farming system.
The Zakarisons are collaborating with Jonathan Wachter, a soil science doctoral student at Washington State University, to demonstrate how integrated livestock farming in wheat country can contribute to sustainability goals. These include increasing and retaining soil nutrients, adding biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing soil erosion.
“They are the ones doing the research on their farm because they want to improve their soil,” Wachter said. “All I’m doing is putting their ideas into practice in a research context to generate the data that backs up some of (their ideas). They’re the real innovators.”Wachter has been working with the Zakarisons since 2012, when they established the five-year research project funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.
It’s a soil thing
There’s no question that large-scale, monoculture grain production helps feed the world. But ecologically speaking, it takes a toll. Serious soil, water and air pollution problems can result from soil erosion caused by tilling and from the use of nitrogen fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.
“Grain farmers are always looking for ways to improve the soil,” said Eric Zakarison. “One of the best ways to increase biomass and organic matter is to grow perennial grass and legume crops like alfalfa. But then, we have to do something with the crop.”
Nutrient cyclers and weeders
He said it’s difficult to produce high quality hay on the Palouse, and a late summer rain can ruin a perfectly good crop. But his 65 white Dorper mother ewes can eat lower quality hay and turn it into milk for lambs and meat for local markets while cycling nutrients through the soil system.
Concerning weeds, organic farming often relies on light but frequent tillage; but on the erosion-prone hills of the Palouse, this is risky business. Cover crops – and grazing sheep – help control weeds.
By nibbling weeds very close to the ground, the sheep act as living weeders. They even prefer some weeds, like prickly lettuce, over grass or alfalfa.
A study in diversity
Of the 1 million-plus acres in the Palouse River drainage that are cultivated, only an estimated 500 acres are organic. Although they are starting small, the Zakarisons plan to eventually convert all of their land into an integrated livestock and organic production system.
Wachter’s study compares three different schemes. One treatment follows a conventional rotation of peas, winter wheat and spring wheat with minimum tillage and the use of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
In an organic treatment, livestock are allowed to graze after three years of growing pasture, supplying nitrogen for the next planting of grain crops. Finally, a hybrid treatment includes livestock plus fertilizer – and herbicides as needed. Austrian winter peas replace the conventional rotation of spring peas and, instead of harvesting a pea crop, sheep graze the crop to return nutrients to the soil.
Over the past three years, Wachter said, the organic treatment has been most profitable and shows carbon has increased in the soil (rather than as a greenhouse gas escaping into the air). The verdict is still out on the hybrid scheme.
Small, local, nimble
Though diversity provides ecological and economic stability to farming, it also requires a lot of work.
Neighboring wheat farmers don’t understand why the Zakarisons are doing this.
“They think it’s way too much work,” Eric Zakarison said. “You’re out there in blizzards, deep snow drifts, mud – and then lambing is going on when you’re getting ready to plant in spring. It takes that extra work and extra income to make it now.
“But we stay diverse, small and nimble,” he said. “We market locally and we make it.”
Find more information on integrated livestock farming at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.