Grazing among grains yields benefits
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.
“This year the dockworker slowdown brought the [alfalfa] hay export industry to its knees, and hay prices plummeted,” Eric Zakarison says. “It turned out to be a better year for lambs than alfalfa.”
• Zakarisons integrate livestock into grain operation to guard against market risks.
• Their integrated operation is being studied on how it can be sustainable
• Sheep help reduce weeds and prefer prickly lettuce over grass or alfalfa.
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.
But diversifying their income streams and boosting profitability aren’t their only motivations 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.
Wachter has been working with the Zakarisons since 2012, when they established the five-year research project funded by a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.
“They are the ones doing the research on their farm because they want to improve their soil,” Wachter says. “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.”
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,” says 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.”
Palouse hay challenged
Zakarison says 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.
He explains that ewes with lambs serve as the delivery mechanism for calcium via their milk. Calcium, he adds, is an important nutrient for grain that is expensive and otherwise hard to supply for crops.
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.
Sheep nibble weeds very close to the ground. They even prefer some weeds, like prickly lettuce, over grass or alfalfa.
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.
Organic method shows profit
Over the past three years, Wachter says 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.
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,” Zakarison says. “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 says. “We market locally and we make it.”
Thanks to Washington State University for information in this article.
This article published in the May, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.
Best Management Practices