Building Soil Tilth: Grazing Sheep on Cover Crop
Zakarison Partnership, Pullman, WA
June 8, 2015
The Palouse region greeted twenty-six farmers, agricultural students, and agricultural professionals with a warm, breezy day for the farm walk at Zakarison Partnership. The Partnership is owned and operated by Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison and Eric Zakarison who were eager to host a farm walk that displayed all the fantastic research they have occurring on their farm in partnership with Washington State University (WSU). This research included building soil fertility through grazing sheep on cover crop in a rotational system and quinoa variety trials. Soil and crop researchers and experts in attendance included Lynne Carpenter-Boggs and John Reganold, both of WSU.
To begin the farm walk, Jonathan Wachter, a WSU graduate student, led attendees out to his test plots to discuss his research on reintegrating perennial pasture and livestock into rotational cropping systems common to the Palouse region. This year is the fourth season of the project in which Jonathon is testing three basic treatments – conventional, integrated (livestock allowed to graze), and organic. The conventional rotation involves rotating through spring pea and either winter or spring wheat utilizing reduced tillage but otherwise conventional inputs and disease management strategies. The integrated rotation involves grazing sheep on spring and winter pea green manures rotated with either winter or spring wheat (also allowing the sheep to graze on the wheat stubble after harvest). This integrated system utilizes reduced tillage and the grazed green manures to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers. The third treatment was organic in which the first three years of the rotation grew alfalfa hay as part of the transitional period to organic. Sheep were grazed on the alfalfa this year (2015) to help terminate the crop, followed by a planting of spring pea. The Zakarisons have a total of 160 sheep (55 of those being ewes) that are grazed through Jonathan’s plots.
Jonathan’s preliminary results are promising, revealing the ability for an integrated system to build soil health. The total soil carbon increased in the plots cropped in hay and the organic matter accumulated even 7 feet beneath the soil surface. Grazing also returned nutrients to the soil and had the added benefit of reducing weed pressure. In 2016, all three treatments will be planted in winter wheat, so Jonathan hopes to see more of a difference in terms of economic returns and yields when comparing the systems.
The group then walked to a different part of the farm to view 20 acres that Sheryl and their farm employee (and future partner), Mary Stewart, had recently fenced in preparation to put the sheep out to graze. These 20 acres were planted in a “crop cocktail” that included Flex Forage peas, beardless barley, turnips, and daikon radish. This cocktail is not only nutritious for the sheep (which they allow to graze down by 50%) but it serves as a green manure to prep the soil for fall planting of winter wheat. Eric will add liquid urea to the soil before planting, if needed.
The farm walk then ended by relocating to a different piece of Palouse hills owned by the Zakarison Partnership, on which quinoa varieties were being tested. Rachel Wieme, WSU graduate student, spoke about these plots in which she is testing the viability of certain varieties of quinoa for growth in the Inland Northwest. Quinoa is a crop that has been in high demand in recent years, and with some great work done by WSU, the crop is being researched more and more for its ability to be incorporated into cropping systems here in the Northwest. Rachel explained that even though it is a broadly adapted crop and is drought tolerant, quinoa is not heat tolerant and prefers cool night temperatures. This type of environment isn’t indicative for many parts of Washington State, but there is room for improvement through the exploration and breeding of different traits in quinoa. Rachel’s research also centers on a three-year rotation of chickpea, barley, and quinoa. Overall, her research takes a system approach to get a basic idea of how quinoa within a cropping system affects yields, crop quality, soil biology, pest pressures, and soil structure.
This farm walk gave interesting look into the research being completed to give farmers options to build their soil fertility, increase their economic viability, and explore new cropping systems and crops. Sheryl and Eric are the type of farmers that encourage the use of research to improve our farming systems in a sustainable way. Further, it was apparent that they are invested in furthering the future of sustainable agriculture through training new farmers, such as Mary, to carry on the work of improving our farming systems. The farm walk ended with a lovely community potluck in which a dozen farmers and students continued to network and share information regarding sustainable agriculture.
Summary by Angela Anegon.
This Farm Walk is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov.