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Multispecies grazing has its advantages

Bonnie Jensen goats with cows-web.jpg
Goats graze with cows on a hillside. In use for centuries before the 1900s, multispecies grazing has been making a comeback.
Using two or more types of livestock can be more profitable and sustainable, producers and researchers say.

Grazing two or more types of livestock in the same pasture is nothing new.  Farmers and ranchers 100 years ago (and for centuries before that) usually had cattle and sheep, and sometimes goats or horses, all in the same pastures. 

In the past 80 years, farming became more specialized; most stockmen raised just cattle, sheep, or goats. But recent years have seen a move back to multispecies grazing, for many reasons. Several enterprises (rather than just one) can be more profitable and sustainable. 

In the past few decades there’s been a lot of research on use of sheep and goats to control weeds and brush without chemicals.  Adding other livestock to cattle operations can have definite benefits.  Whether advantages outweigh the disadvantages may depend on your own situation and purposes, climate, forage growth, etc.  

Bret Olson and colleagues in the Department of Range, Montana State University, published an article in the Journal of Range Management in 1995 on this topic and developed a spreadsheet model.  They did a survey of eastern Montana ranches and created a spreadsheet for a hypothetical 10,000-acre cattle ranch.

“If 10% of the ranch was infested with leafy spurge, and sheep were brought in to graze, would it pencil out? You’d enter the infestation rate (5%, 15%, etc.) to see what would be cost effective,” said Olson.

Kent Williams, an economist and Extension agent at that time, did the spread sheet analyses.  Factors to take into consideration included whether the sheep were owned by the ranch (with associated winter feed costs) or brought in by sheep ranchers to exchange summer grazing for weed control.

Advantages of multispecies grazing include more efficient use of pasture, more meat produced, better weed control (different species of livestock prefer different plants), control of brush (and reduced fire risk) when browsers are included, more parasite control (most species of internal parasites are host-specific and cannot complete their life cycle in the wrong animal), and more income per acre on pastures.  Disadvantages include possible disease spread from one species to another under certain conditions, and possible need for more facilities, labor and management in some situations.  

Rotating animals

The various animals don’t necessarily need to be in the same pasture at the same time; some stockmen prefer to rotate pastures between cattle and sheep for instance, and get much the same benefit as grazing them together.

Karen Launchbaugh, Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Idaho, says with multi-species grazing you can match grazing animals to the forage available, helping keep the plant community healthy and stable—since certain animals eat plants the others won’t. 

“For example, in some places we can’t maintain good deer habitat with just deer because grass will take over,” she said.  If you add cattle, they eat the grass, and then the forbs and brush (deer diet) won’t be crowded out.  Conversely, if there are no deer or other browsers (sheep, goats), to keep brush and forbs in check, those plants can take over and there is less grass for the cattle.

“One advantage to bringing sheep into a cattle operation, apart from the extra income they provide, is you are adding a sustainable vegetation-management tool.  Vegetation management always costs money and effort, but this way it gives something back to you every year and is therefore sustainable,” she explains.  Sheep can eat weeds and other forbs that cattle won’t eat, and can help keep the plant community in balance.

In some areas ranchers and land managers are hiring people with sheep or goats to graze in places where invasive weeds have taken over. 

“We can control species like leafy spurge with intensive sheep grazing.” said Launchbaugh.  “In western 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 cattle, eating and trampling the larkspur, so there’s not enough left to endanger the cattle.  Sheep like larkspur and it’s not very toxic to them.

“Multispecies grazing is a way to increase stocking rate, with a mix of animals that could utilize the whole resource,” she said. 

Complementary grazing is the old term, since the various animals complement one another in diet preferences.  Ranchers usually had a mix of cattle and sheep, with goats used in steeper country.  This leaves more useable forage for cattle, while producing additional products such as sheep/goat meat and/or wool/goat hair.

Animal diets vary

Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Rangeland Management Specialist, says cattle diets are typically 70% grass.  Goat diets are usually 60% browse (bushes and trees).  Sheep diets average about 50% grass, 30% forbs and 20% browse.

Goats eat high off the ground, while sheep and cattle eat low.  Goats and sheep do well on plants that cattle won’t touch, turning “waste” plants into meat and milk.  “In this region of North Dakota, ranchers can add one sheep or 1.5 goats to most pastures without reducing cattle numbers.  If undesirable plants like leafy spurge make up more than 40% of a pasture, you can add 2 sheep per cow or 2 to 2.5 goats per cow,” he says. 

Megan Elwood and her husband raise Boer Goats in northern California on their cattle ranch.  “I got a few goats 15 years ago because there’s a good market for them.  We saw that 75% of the goat meat in the U.S. had to be imported.  Now we have goats and market the meat at a local store.  The meat is USDA inspected.  We also show some of our goats, and sell project goats to 4-H kids,” she said.

“We graze them with our cattle; the goats eat the weeds and plants the cattle won’t eat.  If you have star thistle or other undesirable weeds, goats eat those. They also eat blackberry and other invasive plants,” Elwood said.  In dry summers with fire risk, the brush control obtained by goat grazing is also a big plus.

“Goats can be a nice added crop because they have a short gestation and will kid 3 times in 2 years and you can run 6 goats in place of one cow.  Kids are ready to butcher at 6 months,” she said.  Goats generally have twins and sometimes triplets.

“We sell a lot of them as 4-H projects.  You only need to keep a goat a few months and it is ready to sell; there’s a lot less input cost in keeping a goat compared with a steer or heifer project.  Goats are popular for 4-H fair projects. They are also cheaper to raise than a pig because they don’t need as much grain,” she said.

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