Montana State University (MSU) has received almost $743,000 to research the use of sheep in organic farming, incorporate those findings into MSU courses and share the discoveries with Montana producers and growers.
The three-year grant announced Tuesday by U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was one of 23 awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 18 states. The grants totaling $19 million were given through two programs -- the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and the Organic Transitions Program.
Patrick Hatfield, principal investigator of MSU's project and a professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, said organic farmers don't use chemicals to control weeds, so they often rely on tilling the soil. But, too much tilling and plowing can cause soil to wash away or blow away. The worst scenarios occurred during the 1930s when dust storms carried tons of topsoil for hundreds of miles.
The long-term goal of MSU's study is to integrate sheep into farming systems in a way that's profitable and environmentally sustainable.
"Our goal is to use targeted sheep grazing to reduce tillage intensity, nitrogen leaching, greenhouse gas emission and improve soil fertility and soil carbon sequestration, while taking advantage of weeds, cover crops and crop residues for fiber and meat production," Hatfield said.
The research project will focus on five crops grown in rotation over five years. The crops include sweet clover, flax, winter wheat, lentils and spring wheat. Sweet clover will add nitrogen to the soil. Sheep manure and urine will act as natural fertilizers.
In addition to the research, MSU faculty members will develop two new undergraduate courses and incorporate their findings into those and existing courses. The project also involves an advisory board made up of growers and producers around the state.