Integrating livestock into small-scale vegetable farming systems
Benson-Feagler, Trestin Thea
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Since World War II, modern agriculture systems have shifted to low-diversity monoculture crops, specializing in a singular species and generally separating those crops from livestock. Such systems require high inputs including fertilizers, herbicides and tillage, all of which may reduce ecological potential of farmland. Small-scale farms are becoming more popular due to recent interest in local eating and sustainability. To improve their environmental sustainability, some small-scale farms have incorporated livestock back into cropping systems. Soil health measurements can be valuable in understanding the impacts livestock have on small- scale farming systems as soil is the growth medium for vegetation. The objectives of this study were to evaluate nutrient cycling, microbial communities and compaction in response to grazed versus un-grazed vegetable cropping systems and use this information to understand the interaction between soil biology, nutrient cycling and livestock when integrated in a variety of vegetable production systems. Soil and biomass samples were collected over three years (2017- 2020) before and after sheep grazing occurred on three farm locations in the Northern Great Plains. Soil samples were analyzed for soil microbial diversity, bulk density and soil nutrients. While I found no consistent differences in soil nutrients, bulk density or soil microbial diversity, my results indicate that integrating livestock into small-scale vegetable farming systems did not negatively impact soil quality. Results from this study may help demonstrate to farmers and livestock operators the importance of an integrated approach, for those that already practice this approach there is affirmation that integration is feasible and purposeful and also become the starting point for further research into a little studied topic.