What are integrated systems?

Integrated crop and livestock systems (ICLS) are agricultural management systems where land is rotated over space and time between crop, pasture, and livestock uses. A key characteristic of these systems is that the outputs of one land use are used as inputs into another. For example, manure from livestock is used as a fertilizer source for cropland and crop residues are used as feed for livestock. Due to their emphasis of closing the loop on nutrient cycles, ICLS are fundamentally different than continuous cropping systems, where crops are grown repeatedly in low diversity, low rotation, or double cropped systems; continuous pasture systems, where livestock are grazed predominantly on pasture that is not rotated or mixed with row or tree crops; or continuous livestock systems, where livestock are kept in paddocks without access to pasture and fed grains.

ICLS were once a necessary means to meet food needs locally and protect farmers against fluctuations in precipitation and temperatures. However, this type of agroecosystem has decreased in global abundance in recent decades as a result of increases in availability of farm machinery and synthetic fertilizers, and broader globalization processes that enable more distant linkages between crop and livestock production through trade. The resulting changes in agroecosystems, away from ICLS toward continuous crop, pasture, and livestock systems have provided numerous benefits to society through greater land and labor efficiency and increased global food production. However, the rapid increase in continuous systems has also resulted in numerous social and ecological challenges and increased risks in the face of global climate change. Changes in the structure of agroecosystems away from diverse and complementary components into homogenous and modular landscapes changes the basic functioning of these systems. While nutrients and energy were once recycled through a diverse temporal rotation of complementary crops and livestock, they are now imported through use of synthetic fertilizers and processed feeds. Where organic material was once able to accumulate by incorporating pastures with grazing into a cropland rotation, it is now removed through continuous tillage or overgrazing. Where farmers were once predominantly self-sufficient and buffered from global shocks by producing their own inputs in diversified systems, they are now highly exposed to risk from climate and price variability.

This website is intended to highlight the work of academic researchers and practitioners who are focused on understanding ICLS processes and adoption. We also aim to serve as a clearing-house for publications and data related to ICLS to help farmers and the public better understand the potential benefits of these systems and where they are currently being adopted.