Building system resilience through diversification: livestock integration

Author: Katherine Smith, Soil Science Ph.D. student, Washington State University

An image of a dark green background.

Historically, it was commonplace for crops and livestock to share a home. Animals grazed uncropped or marginal lands, controlling weeds and turning the soil.

Have you ever met a farmer who wanted to be a cowboy?

I haven’t. *laughs nervously*

If you have been a part of any conversations about alternative management systems lately, you may have heard this joke used to ease any tension in the room. The topic of reintegrating livestock can sometimes be met with resistance. This fairly reflects the many challenges that come with these practices. So, approaching this subject is not always easy. 

The room still sighs when the topic of conversation shifts to livestock. But those sighs have an increasingly agreeable undertone. As we gain more understanding of the environmental drawbacks of our current systems, interest in alternative practices is growing. That interest does not seem to be deterred by producers sharing about obstacles or unexpected outcomes. Most have accepted that management of our agricultural systems needs to become more adaptive and resilient if we want to stay productive and profitable. Reintegrating livestock into our cropping systems is (just) one tool that can be used towards this goal. So, let’s talk about it. 

Mixed crop-livestock systems

Potential benefits and challenges in mixed crop-livestock systems.

Historically, it was commonplace for crops and livestock to share a home. Animals grazed uncropped or marginal lands, controlling weeds and turning the soil. They provided manure to the land and food and fiber to us. Livestock served as an additional source of income, reducing risk and providing flexibility on when and what to sell. They also offered an alternative way to utilize a failed crop or to manage residue.  

That idyllic image of livestock roaming the land comes from a time when the average farm, and the world, was smaller. The introduction of large farming equipment shifted agriculture towards more specialized and time/labor efficient practices. However, as agriculture moves toward reducing environmental impacts while trying to maintain productivity, finding ways to exploit those age-old livestock benefits is proving useful.  

Though the big picture looks different, considerable research has shown that there is still much to be gained for both the farm and the environment in these integrated systems 1,2,3,4. Potential benefits and co-benefits include enhanced soil organic carbon (SOC) 5,6, improved nutrient cycling and resource-use efficiency 7,8, reduced disease and weed pressure 1,9, and more stable and abundant soil microbial communities 7,10,11. These benefits allow for things like less reliance on external inputs and, when combined with diverse rotations and practices, can lead to increased system resilience 12. Diversifying income streams and increasing flexibility in making management decisions enhances this resilience further. 

If we can exploit these benefits, our agricultural systems may be better prepared to take on the uncertainties that lie ahead. But, as always, what I have described is the ideal scenario. The benefits are real, but the application is a bit more complicated.  

Is it ever “one-size-fits-all”? 

Just like most practices, mixed crop-livestock systems are not one-size-fits-all. 

Benefits, trade-offs, and obstacles to adoption vary significantly across differences in climate and soil type 12,13. For example, in dryland agriculture water is going to be more significant concern than in less arid locations. Erosion may be higher on the list when grazing steeper land. There are also a range of management strategies and levels of integration over which success and benefits will vary 14. Depending on desired outcomes, one might choose to graze livestock on cover crops, crop residue, or weeds. Alternatively, integration can happen by applying manure that has been produced on farm or utilizing crops for on-farm animal feed. If not carefully managed, overstocking will quickly shift things from beneficial to detrimental. Moderate grazing intensities typically leading to the best outcomes 15,16,17. And this only starts to get at the management complexity and numerous decisions to be made. 

What will it take to increase successful adoption of integrated systems? 

From the bottom up, we need more regional information and more resources. From the top down, complete system redesign. 

Unfortunately, economics and policy are major drivers of the status quo and have typically prioritized systems that tend to separate animals from cropland. Research has identified that a shift in government priorities through “…redesign of research programs, credit systems, payments for ecosystem services, insurance programs, and food safety regulations to focus on whole farm outcomes and the creation of a circular economy” are needed to support reintegration of livestock into our cropping systems 18. Producers need a flexible system that supports innovation and assumes some of the risk that comes along. 

In the meantime, regional research is necessary to define what benefits we might be able to take advantage of in any given location. We can start to chip away at this by developing more field trials and case studies that attempt to answer some of the pressing questions related to management, risk, and return. Not only does research have the potential to influence policy, but it can also inform on-farm decision making for producers already taking the jump into these practices. 

Building from the bottom up: mixed crop-livestock research on the Palouse 

Back in 2012, Washington State University researchers established a research trial just north of Pullman, WA on the Zakarison Partnership land. In 2016, the project became a part of the USDA Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network (This is different from the WaSHI network of long term sites). The project was designed to evaluate the sustainability of four management systems: conventional no-till, mixed crop-livestock conventional no-till, organic annual crop, and mixed crop-livestock organic perennial 19,20 

When I moved to eastern Washington back in 2020, I became the third graduate student owner of this long-term research trial. Though the project has evolved in some ways, we continue to assess the productivity, environmental, and economic realms of sustainability in mixed crop-livestock systems. The longer the trial runs, the more insight we gain into how these systems perform long-term. It has been both fun and challenging to be a part of research that takes a more adaptive approach. Though I don’t know much about the specific outcomes with this trial in my time here, I have learned that no single practice is the golden ticket. It is all about choosing the right tool for the situation. I have also learned that dealing with livestock can be complex… and often challenging. But rewarding. The verdict is still out on the rest. 

Final thoughts 

Integrating livestock is (just) one tool in the toolbox of increasing diversity and managing agricultural systems around the uncertainties we face. But it may be a very valuable one. People are doing it. Partnerships between producers and ranchers are forming. The next time livestock integration slips into the conversation, take note of the tone of the room. Keep an eye out for a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep when you’re out driving. There are more and more of them roaming the drylands these days, and hopefully more to come. If you see me chasing escape artist goats as you drive by, please pretend you didn’t.  

And finally, we are still somewhat lacking in written resources about where to start with livestock in this region, but the knowledge base is growing. There is some additional reading on livestock-related topics to explore below. Ask around, too! Let’s build from the bottom up.  

The potential of mixed crop-livestock systems for global impact is huge. Statistics from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAOSTAT Database (2022).

Dive Deeper (Further Reading): 

Local case studies: 





  1. Russelle, M.P., Entz, M.H., Franzluebbers, A.J., 2007. Reconsidering Integrated Crop–Livestock Systems in North America. Agronomy Journal 99, 325–334. 
  2. Hilimire, K., 2011. Integrated Crop/Livestock Agriculture in the United States: A Review. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 35, 376–393. 
  3. Lemaire, G., Franzluebbers, A., Carvalho, P.C. de F., Dedieu, B., 2014. Integrated crop–livestock systems: Strategies to achieve synergy between agricultural production and environmental quality. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Integrated Crop-Livestock System Impacts on Environmental Processes 190, 4–8.
  4. Sekaran, U., Lai, L., Ussiri, D.A.N., Kumar, S., Clay, S., 2021. Role of integrated crop-livestock systems in improving agriculture production and addressing food security – A review. Journal of Agriculture and Food Research 5, 100190.
  5. Brewer, K.M., Gaudin, A.C.M., 2020. Potential of crop-livestock integration to enhance carbon sequestration and agroecosystem functioning in semi-arid croplands. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 149, 107936.
  6. Carvalho, J.L.N., Raucci, G.S., Cerri, C.E.P., Bernoux, M., Feigl, B.J., Wruck, F.J., Cerri, C.C., 2010. Impact of pasture, agriculture and crop-livestock systems on soil C stocks in Brazil. Soil and Tillage Research 110, 175–186.
  7. Acosta-Martínez, V., Bell, C.W., Morris, B.E.L., Zak, J., Allen, V.G., 2010. Long-term soil microbial community and enzyme activity responses to an integrated cropping-livestock system in a semi-arid region. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 137, 231–240. 
  8. Szymczak, L.S., Carvalho, P.C. de F., Lurette, A., Moraes, A. de, Nunes, P.A. de A., Martins, A.P., Moulin, C.-H., 2020. System diversification and grazing management as resilience-enhancing agricultural practices: The case of crop-livestock integration. Agricultural Systems 184, 102904. 
  9. Hatfield, P.G., Lenssen, A.W., Spezzano, T.M., Blodgett, S.L., Goosey, H.B., Kott, R.W., Marlow, C.B., 2007. Incorporating sheep into dryland grain production systems. Small Ruminant Research 67, 216–221. 
  10. Lacombe, S., Bradley, R.L., Hamel, C., Beaulieu, C., 2009. Do tree-based intercropping systems increase the diversity and stability of soil microbial communities? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Temperate agroforestry: When trees and crops get together 131, 25–31. 
  11. Marchão, R.L., Lavelle, P., Celini, L., Balbino, L.C., Vilela, L., Becquer, T., 2009. Soil macrofauna under integrated crop-livestock systems in a Brazilian Cerrado Ferralsol. Pesq. agropec. bras. 44, 1011–1020. 
  12. Garrett, R., Niles, M.T., Gil, J.D.B., Gaudin, A., Chaplin-Kramer, R., Assmann, A., Assmann, T.S., Brewer, K., de Faccio Carvalho, P.C., Cortner, O., Dynes, R., Garbach, K., Kebreab, E., Mueller, N., Peterson, C., Reis, J.C., Snow, V., Valentim, J., 2017. Social and ecological analysis of commercial integrated crop livestock systems: Current knowledge and remaining uncertainty. Agricultural Systems 155, 136–146. 
  13. Sulc, R.M., Franzluebbers, A.J., 2014. Exploring integrated crop–livestock systems in different ecoregions of the United States. European Journal of Agronomy 57, 21–30. 
  14. Moraine, M., Duru, M., Therond, O., 2017. A social-ecological framework for analyzing and designing integrated crop–livestock systems from farm to territory levels. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 32, 43–56. 
  15. De Faccio Carvalho, P., Anghinoni, I., de Moraes, A., Souza, E., Sulc, R., Lang, C., Flores, J.P., Lopes, M., Silva da Silva, J., Conte, O., De Lima Wesp, C., Levien, R., Fontaneli, R., Bayer, C., 2010. Managing grazing animals to achieve nutrient cycling and soil improvement in no-till integrated systems. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 88, 259–273. 
  16. Abdalla, M., Hastings, A., Chadwick, D.R., Jones, D.L., Evans, C.D., Jones, M.B., Rees, R.M., Smith, P., 2018. Critical review of the impacts of grazing intensity on soil organic carbon storage and other soil quality indicators in extensively managed grasslands. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 253, 62–81. 
  17. Ribeiro, R.H., Ibarr, M.A., Besen, M.R., Bayer, C., Piva, J.T., 2020. Managing grazing intensity to reduce the global warming potential in integrated crop–livestock systems under no-till agriculture. European Journal of Soil Science 71, 1120–1131. 
  18. Garrett, R., Ryschawy, J., Bell, L., Cortner, O., Ferreira, J., Garik, A.V., Gil, J., Klerkx, L., Moraine, M., Peterson, C., dos Reis, J.C., Valentim, J., 2020. Drivers of decoupling and recoupling of crop and livestock systems at farm and territorial scales. Ecology and Society 25. 
  19. Wachter, J.M., Painter, K.M., Carpenter-Boggs, L.A., Huggins, D.R., Reganold, J.P., 2019. Productivity, economic performance, and soil quality of conventional, mixed, and organic dryland farming systems in eastern Washington State. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 286, 106665. 
  20. Davis, A.G., 2022. Sustainability of organic, no-till, and mixed crop-livestock systems on the Palouse (Dissertation). Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

This article was published by the Washington Soil Health Initiative. For more information, visit To have these posts delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WaSHI newsletter. To find a soil science technical service provider, visit the Washington State University Extension website or the Washington State Conservation District website.