Selecting livestock to complement the existing plant species growing in our pastures increases our ecological and economic sustainability. Unfortunately, most producers decide what livestock they want to raise without considering their farm.
However, if we first consider our forages, land, and goals, then select the ideal livestock species and stock pastures accordingly, we can capitalize on diet preferences and grazing behaviors, enabling us to make the most of every acre.
Natural systems do not support monocultures, so grazing multiple species adds layers of economic and ecological benefits.
Diversity is key to benefits
The key to utilizing diverse forage existing in pastures is balancing those plants with the livestock that naturally want to consume them. Maintaining diversity in our pastures leads to numerous benefits that result in increased soil health and the ability to withstand weather extremes.
Having just cattle grazing pastures, the grasses they prefer would be overgrazed. Other parts of the field would remain underutilized and become overgrown with the brush and weeds that cattle avoid.
However, having multiple species grazing encourages a diverse buffet of forages. Each species, cattle, sheep, and goats, have a preferred diet and grazing location.
The old caricatures of goats eating cans and clothes is far from the truth. Of the three species, goats are the most selective. Goats will consume 80% browse if it’s available, but goats will eat 60% browse, 20% grass, and 20% forbs. Skilled at standing on their hind legs to reach tender leaves and vines over their head, goats will go to rather extreme lengths to consume browse.
Sheep consume the broadest range of forages. Their diet consists of 50% grass, 30% forbs, and a bit of browse. Sheep are adapted for selecting the most tender, nutritious forage. They have flexible lips and smaller heads enabling them to select individual leaves or stems.
The diet of cattle is 70% grass. Grazing by grasping forage with their tongue, pulling it into their mouth, and biting it off, cattle ingest longer, more mature grasses in the same mouthful with younger stems.
“With diverse plant species inhabiting a pasture and good management, one sheep or goat can be added for each bovine without impacting the stocking density. In addition, incorporating multiple species can control undesirable plants,” notes Jaelyn Quintana, South Dakota State University Extension Sheep Field Specialist.
Fencing sheep into an area can eliminate invasive and unwanted plant species like leafy spurge, larkspur, and knapweed. Browsing goats can control cedars and brambles. Both species will eat honeysuckle, wild rose, blackberry, and many species of plants that cattle avoid, like certain thistles, ironweed, poison ivy, and goldenrod.
Each species also has preferences regarding where they would rather graze and what areas they avoid. Grazing preferences and behaviors are linked to avoiding predation.
Sheep and goats like to graze and rest where they have a good view of the surrounding land. They don’t mind grazing on hillsides and typically feed into the wind. Sheep will avoid dark and brushy areas that limit their view but seek shade during the warmest part of the day. Both species require less water than cattle and contently graze father from water sources, which is advantageous in drier climates and range situations.
Cattle aren’t very particular where they graze but prefer flatter lowlands if available. Experts say cattle grazing within 700 to 1000 feet of a water source is ideal for pastures. Water availability is an important factor in forage utilization and stocking density. particularly in a rangeland situation.
“Cattle walking less than a ¼ mile to water has been the standard for some time,” says Linda Poole, grazing specialist with NCAT. “Like everything associated with management, it’s never as simple as that.
In gentle country, open cows and yearlings can travel a mile for water which supports better forage utilization. However, shorter distances to water are ideal in hotter temperatures and high stocking densities.”
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Advantages and Challenges of Multi-Species Grazing
The most significant advantages of multispecies grazing are the benefits to your pastures and pocketbooks, but there are also challenges.
Raising multiple species enables producers to increase the health of their pasture, spread out their workload, expand their marketing options, and diversify income streams.
Sheep and goats mature quicker than cattle and typically have multiple offspring, increasing your return on your investment. Noble Research Institute added a flock of Dorper ewes to their Marietta, Oklahoma ranch in 2021. Livestock manager, Clark Roberts says, “The addition of a sheep flock has added another self-sustaining revenue stream. The 150% lamb crop has paid for the ewes while capitalizing on the existing forages. Sheep and goats more readily enable producers to look outside the commodity markets to take advantage of other options like direct marketing that may provide a greater return on their investment.”
This flock is Robert’s first introduction to managing sheep. Like most of us, he had heard that sheep are just looking for a place to die. Roberts has not found that to be true. “The doper ewes had been well managed and rotationally grazed before us purchasing the flock. Any animals that needed much personal attention were culled.”
Roberts is continuing this mindset, the flock is working for the good of the ranch, rather than him working for the flock. Roberts believes in culling animals that don’t maintain their condition, require assistance when lambing, or can’t raise healthy lambs with good minerals and adequate nutrition provided by managed grazing. “Culling pays off in saved time and labor and avoids unneeded stress on both animals and people.”
Instead of spraying weeds and brush, which is costly and harms the microorganisms in the soil, sheep and goats turn those weeds into money. Of course, small ruminants have their drawbacks, but the economic benefits often overshadow the challenges.
Sheep and goats can be more labor-intensive during lambing and kidding than cattle. Permanent fencing is costly. Parasites and predators can be an issue, but these challenges can be addressed.
Electric interior fencing is beneficial for rotating pastures. Rotational grazing has multiple benefits, including increased forage health and diversity, distribution of nutrients by the animals themselves, reducing parasite load, and greater soil health.
Parasite pressure is significantly reduced when forage height does not dip below 4 inches. Predators can be addressed with electric fencing and guardian animals. Bonding the smaller ruminants with cattle also deters predators. Small ruminants grazing close to cattle is like having a group of superheroes just steps away. Grazing species together or following one species with the other reduces pasture parasite contamination.
Benefits > Challenges
“Grazing the different species behind one another enables efficient use of forages while adding a diversity of soil nutrients and enables us to address the different mineral and nutritional needs,” says Roberts.
Multispecies grazing is one of the best ecologically and economically sustainable choices a producer can make, notes Jeff Goodwin, Program Director of Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.
“While raising sheep and goats have not been romanticized like cattle and cowboys,” Goodwin says, “diversifying livestock operations to include small ruminants takes advantage of the varied plant communities in pastures and results in increased plant biodiversity, healthy soils, and more return per acre.”