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Multi-Species Grazing Utilizes Pastures to the Fullest

By : Heather Smith Thomas

When more than one kind of livestock graze a pasture, there can be several advantages; cattle, sheep and goats have different dietary preferences and grazing behaviors. Grazing more than one species can more fully utilize the plants available and produce more meat (and profit) from that unit. Thiscomplementary grazing behavior is also healthier for the land and forage, keeping various types of plants in better ecological balance.

Karen Launchbaugh, Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Idaho, says multi-species grazing allows you to match the grazing animals to the forage. “The key is to have a mix of animals that help keep the plant community stable, since certain animals eat plants the others won’t. There are many examples, such as cattle and deer. It’s hard to maintain good deer habitat with just deer because grass will take over,” she explains. If you add cattle, they eat the grass, and the forbs and brush (the main content of deer diet)  won’t be crowded out. Conversely, if there are no browsers (deer, sheep, goats), to keep the brush and forbs in check, they may take over and there is less grass for cattle.

Over time you may see huge swings, back and forth, between brush and grass, unless you use a complementary grazing strategy to utilize all the plants. “Multi-species grazing is one way we can accomplish our goals, and one of the few sustainable ways available. If we don’t use different species of animals, we must use herbicides, mowing and other tactics,” says Launchbaugh.

“One advantage to bringing sheep into a cattle operation, apart from and beyond additional income, is that you are adding a sustainable vegetation management tool.” In some areas ranchers and land managers hire people with sheep or goats to target-graze in places where invasive weeds have taken over.

On rangelands with large patches of tall larkspur, sheep can prevent cattle losses, since this plant is far less poisonous to sheep. Sheep are sometimes herded through these areas ahead of the cattle, eating and trampling larkspur, and then there’s not enough left to endanger cattle. “The sheep like it and it’s not very toxic to them,” says Launchbaugh. Since some plants are toxic to one species and not another, you can strategically utilize different grazing animals to safely graze certain pastures.

You can also reclaim brushy pastures with sheep or goats. Goats, especially, can utilize brush as the main part of their diet, reaching higher on the plant (even standing on their hind legs to browse higher branches) and stripping back invasive brushy plants.

Targeted grazing utilizes animals to control a specific type of vegetation, whereas multi-species grazing is typically a sustainable grazing practice with different animal species to match the available plants. “You are asking the animal to do something for you besides just produce meat and hide. By using animals to accomplish vegetation management, it costs you something (in fencing, increased management, etc.), but it is more sustainable because it’s a way to get some money back for doing this type of vegetation management,” she says.

Multi-species grazing is an old idea. “When I was growing up, many farmers had cows and  sheep—grazing sheep in barnyards to get rid of weeds that grow between the parked equipment. Some people had goats for this purpose,” says Launchbaugh.

“Now this old idea has come again, but for a new reason. Multi-species grazing is now used for sustainability and ecological health,” she says. In arid regions with extensive fuel loads, goats can be a big advantage in fire control by reducing brush.

“Ranchers are able to use resources that can’t be used with single species. Some cattle cooperatives in Montana and North Dakota pay sheepherders to bring flocks in, to get rid of leafy spurge so they’ll have more grass.”

With multi-species grazing, the animals don’t have to be in the same pasture at the same time. They can follow one another in a strategic rotation system, utilizing the various plants at the best time. In intensively-grazed areas, rotating different species can also reduce parasite load since internal parasites are host specific; cattle parasites don’t generally mature in sheep and vice versa. The parasite cycle can be broken by alternating species. Worm larva (from one species) crawl onto forage plants to be eaten but can’t mature and reproduce if eaten by a different animal, and will not be there on the grass when their host animals come back to that pasture.

INCREASING STOCKING RATE

“Early literature on multi-species grazing focused on it as a way to increase stocking rate—with a mix of animals that could utilize the whole resource,” says Launchbaugh. The various animals  complement one another in diet preferences. It’s usually cattle and sheep, with goats used in steeper country. This enables cattlemen to have more useable forage for cattle, while producing additional products such as sheep/goat meat and/or wool/goat hair.

A variety of grazers is not only good for ecological sustainability, but also allows more production from your land. “From an economic standpoint, it gives more potential. It’s similar to having ‘portfolio diversification’—something more financially stable,” she says. You don’t have all your eggs in one basket.

“It’s the same with having several species of livestock. Cattle markets may be up when sheep are down, and vice versa. You might make a little money on one species when the other is down,” she  explains.

In higher elevation pastures with steep slopes, sheep or goats may utilize rougher portions that cattle rarely graze, while cattle utilize the lower, flatter regions that are not as well liked by sheep or goats. There’s more uniform use of the resource, and more total animals can graze in the pasture.

In some regions sheep can be grazed in winter on certain pastures where there’s not enough water for cattle, since sheep can utilize snow more effectively.

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