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The Great Plains is a mixture of cropland and grassland mainly used for agricultural purposes, with grasslands under continual threat of conversion to cropland. Agriculturists are advocating for the integration of crop-livestock systems (ICLS) to recouple nutrient cycles, improve biodiversity, and increase resilience of agricultural operations. We address the benefits of ICLS in the Great Plains, contending that focus on improving soil health and financial stability of agricultural operations should reduce the conversion of grasslands to cropland. Using US Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Census of Agriculture survey data from the 1925 to 2017 category “cropland used only for pasture or grazing,” which represents land that had been cropped but converted to annual/perennial pasture and grazed, we showcase that the number of farms and the land area in this category is a reasonable proxy of ICLS. As expected, ICLS dramatically decreased in the entire United States from 1925 to 1945, but from 1945 to 2002 in the Great Plains ICLS remained relatively constant, providing evidence of sustained crop-livestock integration. Consistent high numbers of beef cows during this period and the wide availability of forages and crop residues for ruminants facilitated opportunities for producers to use ICLS on their individual operations (within farm) or among operations where row crop farmers and forage-based producers integrated beef cattle use across the landscape (among farms). This integration, however, was decoupled from 2006 to 2013, a period of high grain prices. As a result, economic value of grasslands was decreased and conversion to cropland was increased. Thus, conservation efforts in the Great Plains for grasslands should focus on keeping grasslands intact for provision of multiple ecosystem goods and services by emphasizing incorporation of ICLS within and among farms to reduce the risk of converting grassland to cropland.

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Rangeland Ecology and Management

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.