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Farmers and ranchers have long been in search of ways to limit the need for tillage and chemical herbicides on farmland, and two researchers in Montana State University's College of Agriculture are working on a project that may provide a solution.
With help from the Western Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education program, which is being hosted by MSU until 2023, Devon Ragen, a research associate in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, and graduate student Trestin Benson have conducted two years of tests on local farms to see if grazing sheep on vegetable or cover crop plots can help improve soil health while reducing artificial inputs to the soil.
Differences - Communities - Soil - Profiles - Ragen
"We're looking at differences in microbial communities in the soil and nutrient profiles," said Ragen. "We use sheep for a pre-graze before seeding to clean up all the weeds instead of having to spray or till it up."
Tillage, she said, is one of the biggest detriments to organic farmers. While useful for turning fertilizer and plant matter into the soil, it also promotes wind erosion by making the upper layers of earth easier to blow away. If incorporating sheep into a farming system results in less need for tillage, it would be a win for farmers. Ragen and Benson have partnered with Strike Farms in Bozeman, 13 Mile Lamb and Wool in Belgrade, and Black Cat Farm in Boulder, Colorado; all three farms volunteered to test out their theory and allow sheep to graze their vegetable fields.
Tests - Sheep - Cropland - Weeds - Manure
Those tests have shown that when sheep were allowed on cropland to eat weeds and leave manure and urine—natural fertilizer—behind, it reduced the need for tillage 60 percent of the time. However, having animals in a vegetable field carries with it the concern of the sheep compacting the soil too much and interfering with seeding and...
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