ADDING livestock to no-till cropping systems could have benefits, according to new research although it does involve some trade-offs.
Also known as zero tillage or direct planting, the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) work found livestock and no-till cropping enterprises may co-exist, delivering an important source of farm diversification and risk management.
Désirée Futures’ Dr James Fisher was one of three authors behind a paper on the subject, looking at ground cover, water balance, nutrient cycling, pest management, whole-farm economics and farmer preferences.
He says there were few absolute positives and negatives when livestock were introduced in no-till cropping systems but indicated there were several possible advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages included non-chemical control of pests (particularly herbicide-resistant weeds), economic and production risk management (stability of income), increased biodiversity in plant and soil communities, higher soil organic carbon levels (associated with pasture compared with continuous cropping), more available nutrients (especially nitrogen); and productive use of excess crop residues and failed crops.
Disadvantages included more labour required for stock management and welfare, removal of ground cover during grazing leading to increased potential for erosion, patchiness of livestock impact on soil, plants and soil biota, redistribution of nutrients to stock camp areas, volatilisation losses associated with urine patches, soil compaction from livestock movement and weed redistribution.
“Most farmers do not wish to completely remove livestock from their systems,” Dr Fisher says. “The report identified management approaches that may be used to minimise negative impacts and to realise benefits associated with integrating cropping and livestock.
“It’s important to manage the mix by using rotational grazing with strict minimum ground cover50 to 70 per centand ensuring the levels of soil condition, especially wetness, are adequate, together with individual paddock monitoring.
“The removal of livestock to specific grazing paddocks or confinement feeding areas is an approach being used by some farmers.”
“Livestock in farming enterprises afford the best potential for incorporating perennial plants but the options are currently limited to higher rainfall areas.”
Dr Fisher says the personal preference of farmers is a key element in the decision to incorporate livestock or not.
“This also relates to farmers doing what they do well because they are interested and will focus appropriate management attention on it,” he says.
The research focused on cereal-sheep systems, the dominant farm enterprise mix in southern Australia.
The GRDC commissioned and funded the research, completed on behalf of Curtin University and the Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia.