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Sheep Grazing in Grain Rotation Brings Economic and Ecological Benefits

05 March 2015

A family in Washington State has worked sheep grazing into its wheat production system that is environmentally beneficial and makes a profit.

A tightly integrated system in the Palouse region of east Washington is combining wheat, pea and perennial grass production with sheep. 

The Zakarisons hope to place all of their land into organic management in the future and say the diversification has provided protection from market risks such as the oversupply of grain. 

It also adds an income stream to the farm after it lose direct payments with the 2014 Farm Bill changes.

But diversifying their income stream and boosting profitability isn’t their only motivation for converting to an integrated and organic farming system.

Ecosheep

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.

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White Dorper ewes graze alfalfa on Eric and Sheryl Zakarison’s wheat farm on the Palouse. (Photo by Jonathan Wachter, WSU)

Wachter has been working with the Zakarisons since 2012, when they established the five-year research project funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture 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 said. “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.”

It’s a Soil Thing

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.

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Wheat farmers Sheryl, left, and Eric Zakarison with WSU soil science professor John Reganold and graduate student Jonathan Wachter. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wachter, WSU)

“Grain farmers are always looking for ways to improve the soil,” said Eric 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.”

Nutrient Cyclers and Weeders

He said 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 explained that ewes with lambs serve as the delivery mechanism for calcium via their milk.

Calcium, he said, 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.

By nibbling weeds very close to the ground, the sheep act as living weeders. They even prefer some weeds, like prickly lettuce, over grass or alfalfa.

A Study in Diversity

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.

Over the past three years, Wachter said, 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.

Small, Local, Nimble

Though diversity provides ecological and economic stability to farming, it also requires a lot of work.

NeighboUring wheat farmers don’t understand why the Zakarisons are doing this.

“They think it’s way too much work,” Eric Zakarison said. “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 said. “We market locally and we make it.”

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