FFAR Awards $1 Million Grant to University of Nebraska to Develop Integrated Livestock and Crop Production Systems

Adding Cattle to Crop Fields Shows Potential to Increase Profits and Conserve Resources

portrait of Dr. James MacDonald

James MacDonald, Ph.D., associate professor of animal science and ruminant nutrition in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is leading the team of collaborators. (Photo Credit: Craig Chandler – University of Nebraska)

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a nonprofit established in the 2014 Farm Bill with bipartisan congressional support, today awarded a $1 million Seeding Solutions grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to improve land use efficiency by integrating livestock and crop production systems. The FFAR grant is matched by the UNL Institute of Agriculture and National Resources and the Platte River-High Plains Aquifer for a total $2.4 million investment.

Researchers will investigate various outputs including yields, soil health, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the economic feasibility of adopting these new practices, which bring crop production and cattle grazing together on the same land.

“As the population continues to expand, we must find more efficient ways to produce enough food to feed the growing population,” said Sally Rockey, Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. “FFAR is pleased to support a project that will help efficiently manage resources and provide economic opportunities for American farmers and ranchers.”

The availability of perennial forage for livestock production has decreased as farms move to less diversified systems to grow individual crops. Highly specialized systems, such as monoculture, may be less sustainable than diversified approaches in terms of both resource efficiency and long-term profitability.

The research team, which includes members of a new Nebraska Beef Systems Research Initiative, expects an integrated system, which overlays cattle grazing with existing crop production systems, to increase output per acre and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with production.

“As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I know how important it is for producers to maximize livestock production and increase overall productivity,” said Rep. Don Bacon, the congressman representing Nebraska’s 2nd District. “Nebraska is the number one state for beef and veal exports and for commercial red meat production. This grant will allow the University of Nebraska to contribute to the state’s cattle production and research effective land use practices to help new farmers. I’m excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for Nebraska’s agriculture community.”

James MacDonald, Ph.D., associate professor of animal science and ruminant nutrition in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is leading the team of collaborators. Integrated systems have unique benefits for young and beginning farmers, he says.

“It’s very difficult for new or young farmers to get started,” said MacDonald. “You may not own the land or need to work with a family member’s existing system to start your own enterprise. Integrating cattle without disturbing crop production with minimal investment can help young producers get started and stay in agriculture.”

The first goal of the research is to develop a combined cattle and crop production system that maximizes land use efficiency, improves soil health, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The project will also investigate if the benefits of using cover crops are retained when they are used for livestock forage, a research gap that has not had much scientific inquiry.

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

Producers will play a vital role in the research by participating in surveys and focus groups to gather input about how they make decisions. Outcomes of this study will help farmers and ranchers understand which practices will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while efficiently producing food in a diversified system.

This project is supported by FFAR through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for bold, innovative, and potentially transformative research proposals in the Foundation’s seven Challenge Areas. This grant supports the Protein Challenge, which aims to enhance and improve the environmental, economic, and social sustainability production of diverse proteins for a growing global population.

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

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