Healthy Farm Practices: Integrating Crops and Livestock

Combining plant and animal agriculture has multiple benefits

U.S. livestock production was once conducted on the same farms that grew feed crops, but over the past half-century, most livestock have been removed from that setting and consolidated into enormous CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) that produce far too much manure to be distributed as fertilizer economically (since crop fields are often too far away). Instead, the manure spills from lagoons, runs off fields, or leaches into groundwater—transforming the nutrients in manure from the valuable resources they could be into dangerous pollutants.

The current situation is considered economically efficient only because livestock producers can ignore the societal costs of pollution and the lost value of manure in their calculations.

Plant and animal agriculture can be reintegrated in several ways. Some livestock, especially beef cattle and dairy cows, could be raised partially or entirely on pastures, which (when well managed and not overstocked) would reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, store carbon, and provide habitat for beneficial organisms. Pasture-raised livestock also require fewer antibiotics than those raised in CAFOs, reducing their contribution to the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease. Furthermore, pasture-based and other integrated livestock operations offer midwestern farmers the opportunity to meet rising consumer demand for healthy, humane, grass-fed, and sustainably raised meats and milk.

Crop and livestock reintegration can be accomplished on a regional basis or on individual farms; distributing animal operations throughout the Midwest would produce a range of benefits, from reduced nutrient pollution to enhanced soil fertility. And integrated livestock production would support local markets for forage crops such as alfalfa, helping to facilitate longer crop rotations and conservation practices in the region.

Last revised date: September 27, 2016

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