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Sustainable Agriculture

Cattle, Pecan Trees an Environmentally Sound Mix

Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for native pecan production and third for its forage-based beef industry, so it's no surprise that cattle and pecans co-exist on about 50,000 acres. They make good companions.

Cattle gain weight on grass that otherwise would require mowing, return nutrients through manure, and prune the lower limbs of pecan trees. In return, orchard shade encourages cattle to graze and gain weight in hot weather.

There's room for improvement in that symbiotic relationship, however, says Oklahoma State University (OSU) extension horticulturist Dean McCraw, who is using a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to refine the system.

While most pecan/beef cattle operations use commercial fertilizer and follow a “typical” orchard spray program, according to McCraw, “Research has shown that profits and environmental impacts can be improved by replacing the purchased nitrogen with legume pastures and developing a customized pest management system based on scouting and weather monitoring. We are looking at how all these components interact on real farms.”

Legume pastures planted in the orchards increased daily weight gain for the steers, improved soil health by reducing grazing compaction, reduced nitrogen runoff, and increased habitat for beneficial insects. Over the 3-year project, native pecan trees in plots with legume pastures averaged nearly 700 pounds of pecans per acre and more than 250 pounds of beef gain per acre without any added nitrogen fertilizer.

The result: a savings of nearly $30 per acre in fertilizer cost while essentially eliminating fertilizer runoff potential. The benefit of legumes was most dramatic in flood-prone plots, where legumes prove tough enough to withstand excessive water and out-compete other vegetation.

While the orchard/beef combo proves useful in eastern Oklahoma, with its 100,000 acres of native pecan trees, another SARE project is helping ranchers find the system that best suits their own resources.

Damona Doye, OSU extension economist, used case studies of cow/calf operations to identify management strengths and weaknesses in animal science, forages, financial management, and herd health. During the course of the multi-state project, more than 100 ranchers in three states identified potential cost-saving measures of about $3,000 annually each.

Doye shared case study findings with other producers during information exchange forums and offered training to veterinarians and accountants so they can better assist their farm clients to improve resource management practices.


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