From Flocks to Fields: Crop-Livestock Integration at Local Color Farm and Fiber
Working on about 15 acres of a combination of owned and leased farmland, Emily Tzeng manages a flock of sheep who graze not only alongside her vegetable crops, but sometimes in them. She was one of the farmers that OFRF spoke with about Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems, the practice of raising livestock and crops together in ways that benefit the whole farm ecosystem.
In answer to the question “which came first, the animals or the plants,” Emily said for her it was the animals. Local Color Farm and Fiber started out as a side project for Emily while she was working for another farm in the area. An acquaintance was getting rid of a small flock of Finn sheep, and Emily decided to take them on to graze at a neighboring property for fiber and meat production. She also began growing natural dye plants for dying the wool from the sheep, which gave way to her farm’s name. Now the sheep are integrated into her own farm business.
Local Color Farm and Fiber grows a wide variety of vegetables, including a lot of East Asian vegetable varieties, and sells through farmers markets, a CSA, and contracts with local food banks. At this point about 80% of the farm revenue comes from crops, but the sheep still play an important role. “Most farms choose one or the other to focus on [crops or livestock],” she said, “but I find it really beneficial to have sheep.”
“We work a lot of cover crops into our rotations, so we use sheep to mow the cover crops,” Emily explained. She also uses them to graze old crop residue, letting the sheep into a field after the marketable produce has been harvested. “In NW we grow a lot of brassicas, and the sheep eat a lot of old kale crops and things like that,” she said.
Emily had experienced integrating crops and livestock at another farm she had worked at previously, and she said there were multiple reasons that it made sense to pursue crop-livestock integration as she got her own systems established. “The parcel that we landed on is a really irregular shape,” Emily explained, “which is part of why the larger farmers around us weren’t interested in it. Also we’re right next to the Puyallup river, so there are lots of sections of the farm that would be hard to row crop, but are easy to graze on.”
For farmers practicing crop-livestock integration, food safety is an especially important factor in their farm planning. It is important that there is no manure residue on fresh vegetables when they are picked for market. “The big thing is making sure you have three months in between any raw manure application and when you harvest something from that space,” Emily explained. Standards for certified organic farmers include a crop nutrient management standard (§ 205.203) that states that raw manure, if applied to lands with crops intended for human consumption, must be applied and incorporated 120 days before the harvest of any crop that has contact with the soil or 90 days before the harvest of a crop whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil.
For farmers like Emily this means careful crop rotation planning that takes into account the days-to-harvest time for various crops. “That’s the reason why if the animals are in the veggie spaces they are on a cover crop that is in a fallow rotation, or an area that will be planted in something like winter squash that has a really long season,” she explained. “If we have spaces that are getting cropped again, like garlic into fall roots, then we bring the crop residue to the sheep instead,” Emily explained. “They also eat a lot of weeds,” she added with a laugh.
While manure management is a concern for food safety, it’s a huge benefit in terms of soil fertility. As Emily’s sheep help mow down cover crops or eat old broccoli, they naturally spread their manure out behind them wherever they go. The manure slowly breaks down and gets incorporated into the soil, adding a healthy dose of nutrients. Emily also collects the manure and bedding material from the sheep barn and turns it into rich compost. “We’re able to make all of our compost on the farm from their bedding,” she said. Adding that “It’s hard to buy the quality of compost that we make in this area.” Emily works this compost into the farm rotation, applying it to fields in a rotation so that each planting block receives a compost amendment about once every three years. She alternates the compost application with cover crops and animal rotations to continually add nutrients.
In the five years that Emily has been farming on that site, she says she’s noticed a lot of benefits that she attributes to the integrated systems. “The organic matter has doubled in the time we’ve been here,” Emily said. Soil organic matter (SOM) content is a factor many farmers use to gauge overall soil health, as increases in SOM mean increases in the ability of soils to hold and deliver water and nutrients to crops. The higher the SOM the better. In Emily’s experience that increase has been significant. “Washington has a Mediterranean climate, very dry in summer,” she explained. “With increased organic matter we’ve had to irrigate less than we used to. Being able to intentionally integrate so many cover crops that are managed by grazing has been really helpful. The on-farm generated fertility is actually really amazing.”
As Emily has refined her farm operation over the past few years, she has been able to begin to invest in good infrastructure. “When we bought it there was nothing on it, which presented some challenges,” Emily said. One of the first purchases she made was a chute system for animal handling. “We had very little animal handling equipment when we started, (and youthful backs),” she said, laughing. “We relied on luck.”
This year she is excited to be building a better heavy-use area for the sheep in the winter, as well as a covered manure storage structure, to prevent nutrient loss from runoff during winter rains. “It is so wet in the winter that we can’t graze at all from late fall when it starts raining until April,” Emily said. “So having a good heavy-use area that the animals can spend time on in the winter is important.” The local conservation district was able to help provide funding for the manure storage space, and they have funded some other projects in the past, including putting gutters on the barns, and planting a hedgerow along the river.
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service has also provided Emily with some funding for infrastructure projects. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) supported a couple of high tunnels for the farm and an irrigation system to help keep the pastures irrigated in the summer. “Overall it’s been a positive experience to work with all these agencies,” Emily said. “We definitely wouldn’t be able to buy all this ourselves.”
At Local Color Farm and Fiber, crop-livestock integration has been in place since the very beginning. The benefits of integration include, but are not limited to: utilizing land not suitable for row crops, easier incorporation of cover crops into soil following grazing, grazing unmarketable row crops, managing weeds by utilizing them as feed, reducing inputs due to on-farm composting, and doubling SOM in 5 years. A side benefit is that the increase in SOM has led to, among other things, a decrease in irrigation needs. Like many farmers who integrate crops and livestock, Emily is observing that many of the benefits of integration increase over time and contribute to the long term overall health of soil, plants, and livestock.
Visit Local Color Farm and Fiber’s webpage.