Integrating Livestock and Crops: Improving Soil, Solving Problems, Increasing Income

By Linda Coffey and Tracy Mumma, NCAT Agriculture Specialists


Traditional farms relied on livestock to maintain soil fertility and to use plant material that would otherwise have been wasted. Modern agriculture has tended to favor specialization, leading to large crop farms with no livestock. Incorporating livestock into a crop farm (grain, vegetable, or orchard) can benefit the soil organic matter and fertility, diversify the product base, provide new sources of income and farm resilience, and help with weed and pest control. Chemical, fuel, and fertilizer expenditures can be minimized and a new dimension added to the farm. This publication will outline some of the benefits and challenges of integrating livestock into a farm and will offer tips and resources to ease the transition. Case studies are included.


Using sheep to clean up an area before planting is a time-honored method. Modern electronet fencing makes controlling the animals much easier. Photo: Dave Scott, NCAT

Further Resources


Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management. Third Edition. 2009. By Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program. Handbook Series Book 10.
This book offers a comprehensive, interesting, readable, and practical look at soil and how to manage it to increase organic matter and fertility, resulting in healthier plants and more productive land. Farm case studies, photos, illustrations, graphs, and tables break up the chapters, and historical quotes add to the interest.

Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Third Edition. 2012. Edited by Andy Clark. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program. Handbook Series Book 9.
This book explores how and why cover crops work and provides all the information needed to build cover crops into any farming operation. It offers specific information on using grains, brassicas, legumes, grasses, and mustards, and enables producers to make good decisions about the cover crops and rotations that will work best for them.

Targeted Grazing Handbook. 2006. Edited by Dr. Karen Launchbaugh. American Sheep Industry Association.
Chapter 14 includes great examples of incorporating targeted grazing into farming systems.


Best Management Practices: Land Application of Animal Manure. By Johnson, Jay and Don Eckert. No date. The Ohio State University Extension. AGF-208-95.
Concise publication giving guidelines to properly apply manure to land while protecting the environment. Many tables showing nutrient content of various manures, nitrogen content of manures, availability of residual nitrogen in subsequent years, and more.

Electric Fencing for Serious Graziers. By USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2005.
This 34-page document is colorful, readable, and very practical. Many illustrations and drawings help the reader understand the fundamentals of using electric fence. Local NRCS offices may have this in print.

Environmental Benefits of Manure Application. By Rick Koelsch and Ron Wiederhold. 2012. eXtension.
A very short article with links to more information. Manure that is applied correctly has many benefits to the environment, as explained here.

Grazing Crop Residues with Beef Cattle. By Rick J. Rasby, Galen E. Erickson, Terry J. Klopfenstein, and Darrell R. Mark. 2008. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. EC278.
This publication details the use of crop residues with respect to beef cattle nutrition and includes helpful guidelines on supplementing cattle once residues become too low-quality. Provides good management guidelines, a budget, and tips on figuring rental rates.

Integrating Livestock Production into a Vegetable Cropping System: Pros and cons, dos and don’ts. By Rick Kersbergen. No date. University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
The benefits and challenges of using livestock or manure from livestock operations on a vegetable farm are spelled out here concisely. There are also links to information regarding food safety and the use of manures on vegetable operations, and the Good Agricultural Practices audit and certification process.

Perspectives in Grazing. By Janet Bradbury et al. 2003. North Dakota Private Grazing Lands Coalition.
This publication features 10 ranches in North Dakota and describes the practices used by the ranchers to improve the ecological condition of the land and the economic condition of the family. Benefits, advice from the ranchers, beautiful color photos, and graphics.

Sheep Grazing Effectively Controls Weeds in Seedling Alfalfa. By Carl E. Bell and Juan N. Guerrero. 1997. California Agriculture. Vol. 51 (2): 19–23. March-April.
A three-year experiment compared sheep grazing to herbicides for weed control in seedling alfalfa in the Imperial Valley. Yields for the first season were highest with the grazed treatment and the untreated control because of the contribution of weeds to the hay. There was no difference in the alfalfa forage yield and density among any of the treatments. Lambs preferred weeds to the alfalfa, and the nutritional value of the weeds was usually comparable to that of the alfalfa.

Integrating Livestock and Crops: Improving Soil, Solving Problems, Increasing Income
By Linda Coffey, NCAT Agriculture Specialist
and Tracy Mumma, NCAT Program Specialist
Published December 2014

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.