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Mixed Farming....

Mixed Farming

Mixed farming is common worldwide, in spite of a tendency in agribusiness, research and teaching towards specialized forms of farming. Obviously, mixing has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, farmers in mixed systems have to divide their attention and resources over several activities, thus leading to reduced economies of scale. Advantages include the possibility of reducing risk, spreading labour and re-utilizing resources. The importance of these advantages and disadvantages differs according to the sociocultural preferences of the farmers and to the biophysical conditions as determined by rainfall, radiation, soil type and disease pressure. This chapter first describes several forms of mixing. Second, it explains how mixing of several parts requires a special approach to make a success of the total mix. What counts is the yield of the total, not of the parts. Trees in and on the edge of a crop field generally reduce the grain yield, but the combination of the trees (for fodder and timber) and crops is valuable, because each of the components produces useful products for the farm (people and animals included).


Mixed farming exists in many forms depending on external and internal factors. External factors are weather patterns, market prices, political stability, technological developments, etc. Internal factors relate to local soil characteristics, composition of the family and farmers' ingenuity. Farmers can decide to opt for mixed enterprises when they want to save resources by interchanging them on the farm - because these permit wider crop rotations and thus reduce dependence on chemicals, because they consider mixed systems closer to nature, or because they allow diversification for better risk management.

There is wide variation in mixed systems. Even pastoralists practise a form of mixed farming since their livelihood depends on the management of different feed resources and animal species. At a higher level, a region can consist of individual specialized farms and service systems that together act as a mixed system. Other forms of mixed farming include cultivation of different crops on the same field, such as millet and cowpea or millet and sorghum, or several varieties of the same crop with different life cycles, which uses space more efficiently and spreads risks more uniformly


The choice of mixed farming is not always a sign of improvement of the situation in which people may find themselves. Mobile Fulani herdsmen in West Africa engage in crop production only when forced by circumstances, such as drought or animal diseases, leading to severe losses in livestock, making continuation of their former way of life impossible. Mixed farming is for them a poverty-induced option. Resource-poor farmers going into mixed farming have to apply labour- intensive techniques (their only resource) and, because of their low purchasing power, they cannot afford external inputs and have no option but to overexploit the environment.

The study of a wide variety of mixed systems at different levels is beneficial to understanding the logic of mixed systems in general. Disciplines such as ecology, economics and complex system theory have tools and concepts that can help us to understand better the mixed blessings of mixed systems. One essential point here is that the principle of mixing occurs everywhere, also in society - domestic waste such as glass, bottles or paper is also recycled. Another point is that in mixing the different functions of plants and animals can be observed: a cereal crop produces grain and straw, a legume provides grain, organic matter, fodder and nitrogen. A third point is that it tends to be more important to look for high yield of the combination of the components rather than for the (high) yield of one component. Mixed farms are systems that consist of different parts, which together should act as a whole. They thus need to be studied in their entirety and not as separate parts in order to understand the system and the factors that drive farmers and influence their decisions. 


Mixed farming systems can be classified in many ways - based on land size, type of crops and animals, geographical distribution, market orientation, etc. Three major categories, in four different modes of farming, are distinguished here. The categories are:

  • On-farm versus between-farm mixing 
  • Mixing within crops and/or animal systems 
  • Diversified versus integrated systems

The modes of farming refer to different degrees of availability of land, labour and inputs, ranging from plenty of land to a shortage of land. The modes are characterized by Schiere and De Wit (1995) as expansion agriculture (EXPAGR, plenty of land), LEIA, HEIA and new conservation agriculture (NCA, a form of land use where shortages are overcome by more labour, more inputs and keen management).

On-farm versus between-farm mixing

On-farm mixing refers to mixing on the same farm, and between-farm mixing refers to exchanging resources between different farms. On-farm mixing occurs particularly in LEIA where individual farmers will be keen to recycle the resources they have on their own farm. Between-farm mixing occurs increasingly in HEIA systems - in countries such as the Netherlands it is used to mitigate the waste disposal problems of specialized farming. Crop farmers use dung from animal farms, a process that involves transport and negotiation between farmers and even politicians. Between-farm mixing also occurs at the regional level - in the store cattle systems of the United Kingdom and the United States, animals are raised in one area to be fattened in another area where plenty of grain is available. In tropical countries also, manure may be transported from livestock farms to farmers and vegetable cropping areas where manure is in short supply.

Mixing within crop and/or animal systems

Mixing within crop and/or within animal systems refers to conditions where multiple cropping is practised, often over time, or where different types of animals are kept together, mostly on-farm. Both these systems occur frequently though they are not always apparent.

Within-crop mixing takes place where crop rotations are practised over and within years. For example, a farmer has a grain-legume rotation to provide the grain with nitrogen or a potato-beet-grain rotation to avoid disease in the potatoes. Plants can also be intercropped to take maximum advantage of light and moisture, to suppress weeds or prevent leaching of nutrients through the use of catch crops. Examples of mixing between animals are found in chicken-fish pond systems where chicken dung fertilizes the fish pond; in beef-pork systems where pigs eat the undigested grains from the beef cattle dung; or in mixed grazing such as cow-sheep mixes to maximize biomass utilization or to suppress disease occurrence

Diversified versus integrated systems

The distinction between diversified and integrated systems is perhaps the most relevant one for this report. Diversified systems consist of components such as crops and livestock that co-exist independently from each other. In particular, HEIA farmers can have pigs, dairy and crops as quite independent units. In this case the mixing of crops and livestock primarily serves to minimize risk and not to recycle resources.

Integration is done to recycle resources efficiently. It occurs in mixed ecological farms of temperate countries (here called the mode of new conservation agriculture, NCA), but also in mixed, relatively low input farms of southern and southwestern Australia with grain-legume-sheep mixtures. Integration occurs most often, however, in LEIA farming systems that exist in many tropical countries where products or by-products of one component serve as a resource for the other - dung goes to the crops and straw to the animals. In this case the integration serves to make maximum use of the resources. Unfortunately, these systems tend to become more vulnerable to disturbance because mixing of resource flows makes the system internally more complex and interdependent.

The best known type of integrated mixed farming is probably the case of mixed crop-livestock systems. Cropping in this case provides animals with fodder from grass and nitrogen-binding legumes, leys (improved fallow with sown legumes, grasses or trees), weeds and crop residues. Animals graze under trees or on stubble, they provide draught and manure for crops, while they also serve as a savings account. This kind of system using crops and ruminants such as cattle, buffaloes, sheep and goats is the focus of this publication. But even here it is necessary to further distinguish different systems (called "modes") as explained in the following section.


Even in integrated systems the exchange of resources such as dung, draught and crop residues takes place in degrees that differ among the so-called modes of farming,based on the availability of land, labour and capital respectively

  • Expansion agriculture (EXPAGR)
  • Low external input agriculture (LEIA)
  • High external input agriculture (HEIA)
  • New conservation agriculture (NCA)

Different modes of mixed farming

The EXPAGR mode occurs where land is abundant, i.e. where shortage of land or local fertility are overcome by migration or by expansion into other regions where bush and forest fallow still occur. Typical examples of mixed farming in this mode are found in West Africa and in old Asian and European grazing systems. Animals were sent out to graze and would (occasionally) come home to "pull the plough or fertilize the crop fields". The crop fields themselves could move elsewhere if local soil fertility declined. However, this mode is becoming more rare as land resources are exhausted throughout the world.

Mixed farming in LEIA occurs where the shortage of land can no longer be overcome by migration or use of substantial areas elsewhere for grazing. Lack of access to external inputs such as fuel, chemical fertilizers or pesticides implies that only increased use of labour and skills offers a way out. This also implies the introduction of modified practices, and the need to adjust demand according to resource availability 

ung is carried around on the farm by using more labour because a lack of soil fertility cannot be compensated by shifting to more land or by employing more livestock to "produce" more dung. In LEIA systems the latter is considered a resource but a waste product in HEIA systems . If not managed properly and if demand for food and other crops is not adjusted to the carrying capacity of the soil, this can result in mining of soils and/or collapse of the systems.  calculated that the cotton-cereal systems in southern Mali earned 40 percent of their income by mining the soil. However, this cannot go on indefinitely and sooner or later the system will collapse if there are no changes. Some researchers think that animals, when managed correctly, can serve to fill part of the gap that exists between the output and the input of nutrients in the system, together with a proper use of chemical fertilizer.

Mixed farming in the HEIA mode is not frequently found because it implies plentiful access to resources such as external feed and fertilizer that make exchange and recycling of resources at farm level not relevant. Exchange of resources between farms only exists, as seen in the section On-farm versus between-farm mixing, after the excessive use of fertilizer forces farmers to recycle the waste. In the HEIA mode the demand for output determines the use of inputs. The use of external resources can reach such high levels that the environment is affected by emissions from the crop and/or animal production systems, ultimately leading to waste disposal problems, thus forcing HEIA into NCA.

NCA is a mode of farming where production goals are matched as closely as possible to the resource base. This approach represents a mix between HEIA and LEIA, i.e. it aims to replace the removed nutrients but it also aims to achieve keen farming and adjusted cropping and consumption patterns to suit local conditions. The use of leys (improved fallows for grazing) is important to regenerate soils, to add nitrogen, to mobilize phosphate and to suppress weeds (i.e. to avoid herbicides).


Mixed systems occur in several forms. For example, pastoral systems have experience in the management of mixed herds and of livestock with feed resources. One form of mixing occurs where livestock is kept on grazing lands distant from cropland in the EXPAGR mode where land is abundant. Mixed systems can also occur as a combination of specialized farms that exchange resources among them, particularly in HEIA. This report focuses on the kind of mixing that is found in integrated crop-livestock systems. Diversified systems are a combination of specialized subsystems that aim to reduce risk in conditions of variable but relatively abundant resources. Strong integration is associated with LEIA and NCA conditions where use of resources such as fertilizer and fossil fuel is restricted because of problems with pollution. This gives clues to development workers and policy-makers: cheap resources lead to specialization, restricted use of resources leads to mixing. An important aspect in promoting mixed farming is that the yield of the total enterprise is more important than the yield and/or efficiency of the parts. This is elaborated in the next chapter in which the technologies are presented.



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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.