Livestock Specialists: the missing link to unlocking soil health!

For the last three years, Sustainable Food Lab has partnered with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) on our Small Grains in the Corn Belt Initiative to promote small grain rotations. With funding from the Walton Family Foundation, McKnight Foundation and a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, the initiative has been encouraging stakeholders to explore small grains and cover cropsas a tool to diversify cropping systems and improve soil health.

The Midwest is covered mostly in corn and soybean, warm season crops that grow during the summer months and leave the land uncovered during the shoulder seasons when soils are most vulnerable to rain and wind events.More diverse rotations with a cool season small grain crop (such as oats, wheat, rye, triticale) coupled with a cover crop can keep the land covered year round and results in macro level benefits such as improved soil health, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved water quality, while also improving timing of field work, reducing pest cycles and increasing weed control. These rotations are economically profitable over a 3-year rotation. Crops diversification is a key practice to increase farmer economic resiliency, resiliency to climatic events and it a practical strategy to help companies achieve their sustainable sourcing goals.

Small grains were once a common part of Midwest cropping systems but are now scarce in the Corn Belt. Markets have disappeared as animals have moved away from the farm and the feed system has become optimized for corn and soy. Farmers want to grow small grains and cite the lack of markets as the biggest barrier to bring small grains back into their rotation system. Feeding small grains to livestock and re-developing a feed market is critical to pulling this change on to the landscape. PFI’s recent blog post, shares the full range of benefits of small grains as a feed source, one particular benefit being increased nutrients. Seen as key partners to promoting the use of small grains in feed and livestock rations, livestock specialists and nutritionist can help influence the adoption of small grains and help stakeholders understand their associated benefits.

To learn more from these livestock specialists, we are convening a small but committed group of livestock and nutritionist researchers and practitioners for a Summit during PFI’s Annual Small Grains Conference, August 15-16 in Wisconsin.  Our goal is to help this community better understand the landscape benefits of extended rotations and how this can be a helpful strategy to meet company sustainability goals, explore the nutrition considerations for feeding more diverse rotations, and to jointly brainstorm the issues or barriers that we could design projects and research around as part of our continued community of practice.  For those interested in joining us or learning more, please contact Elizabeth Reaves.

Following our meeting in August, the Food Lab and PFI are co-hosting a small grains and livestock feed event with the University of Minnesota and Target to review GHG impacts from changing animal livestock feed rations to include small grains grown in rotation with corn and soybeans. This event will utilize the University of Minnesota’s FoodS3 Model. To learn more visit our events page.

For more information about our work in Small Grains view our website and for quarterly updates, join the Small Grains Newsletter.

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