By Doug Schmitz
ARDEN HILLS, Minn. – Multi-species grazing livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats can provide many advantages to producers looking to mitigate risk, diversify their income, and get more from their pastures, even with limited forage availability, according to livestock experts.
“Raising different species together is fairly common, and I’ve seen the practice grow in recent years,” said Clay Elliott, small ruminant nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition, which has been promoting multi-species grazing, that, he added, “gives farmers and ranchers another avenue for income.”
Multi-species grazing is grazing two or more species of livestock or animals on the same pasture, either concurrently, or back-to-back, said Erika Lundy-Woolfolk, Iowa State University extension beef specialist.
“This grazing management practice is designed to capitalize on forage species preference of the livestock to improve forage utilization, or renovate pastures,” she said.
“While cows tend to prefer to graze forages (i.e., grasses, legumes, etc.) at ground level, goats tend to prefer ‘less desirable’ forages like weeds, forbs (flowering plants), shrubs, etc., that are at head height, or above,” she added. “Sheep tend to graze both forages like cattle – although tighter to the ground – and also will graze on some weeds as well.”
Dan Macon, University of California cooperative extension livestock and natural resources adviser, who works with livestock producers implementing multi-species grazing, said, “Traditionally, it has mostly been small ruminants and cattle, but it can be just about any combination, (including poultry, horses, etc.).
“It can work in a variety of ways,” he said. “Some producers run multiple species in one big mob; others rotate one species after the other.”
Elliot said sheep, goats and cattle are the perfect complementary species to graze together because they aren’t always competing for the same forages.
He said one option to address specific nutritional issues such as the differing copper needs is to feed all species a sheep mineral that’s low in copper, and supplement cows and goats with a bolus product (a specific product, which includes macronutrients and trace elements, as well as vitamins) once or twice a year to meet their copper needs. Soil testing can help determine how often cattle and goats need copper supplementation, he added.
Macon, however, said, “Cattle, sheep, and goats do have slightly different micronutrient requirements, which can potentially be problematic. For example, copper is toxic to sheep, but necessary for cattle and goats. Mineral supplementation needs to be well thought out in these systems.”
Lundy-Woolfolk said since the copper level required to meet cow requirements exceeds the toxicity level of copper in sheep, “Many producers will utilize a leader-follower (where one species grazes ahead of the other), and move the mineral supplements with the species to keep sheep away from cattle mineral.”
Elliott said one advantage of multi-species grazing is it allows producers to mitigate risk by opening up additional market opportunities, and gaining more income per acre of pasture.
“A cow can only maintain herself and raise one calf every year,” he said. “You could add four to five ewes and their babies on that same acre of ground, giving you another revenue source.”
Macon said another advantage is each species has a slightly different grazing behavior and preference, so multi-species grazing can actually increase stocking rate without impacting carrying capacity.
“In other words, the same land can support more animal units,” he said. “Furthermore, cattle are dead-end hosts for small ruminant parasites and vice versa, so grazing in rotation can reduce parasite control costs. In areas where predators are a concern, cattle may provide some protection to small ruminants.”
Beth Reynolds, Iowa State’s Iowa Beef Center program specialist, said, “The primary advantage of multi-species grazing is, because these different species have different grazing preferences, incorporating sheep and/or goats in the grazing plan will quickly increase the pounds of product produced in the grazing season.
“For example, the general rule is you can add one or two sheep for every pair grazing without other stocking rate adjustments and managing in one group of livestock,” she said.
“Also, due to the grazing preferences, incorporating goats in particular, but even sheep to some extent, is advantageous in weed and brush control,” she added. “This is more effective if the goats are managed in a high stocking rate group and restricted to target brush/weed areas.”
But even in an environment grazing with cows on a large, primarily grass land base, she said they will select forage that cattle are reluctant to eat.
“A key to success if controlling a particular weed is to target grazing when that weed is most palatable,” she said. “For example, goats love Canadian thistle and honey locust, but during the early growth stages.”
She said, however, most of the disadvantages of multi-species grazing can be rolled into a simple theme: it requires managing multiple species of livestock.
“First, we can talk about infrastructure challenges and making sure fences are adequate to keep each species in, and that water sources are accessible for each species; (making sure) tanks aren’t too tall for the small ruminants,” she said.
“For day-to-day management, mineral and supplement options must be safe and effective for each species in the pasture,” she added. “Additionally, some plants can pose a higher toxicity risk to one species than another.”
While there are many benefits to raising multiple species together, Elliott said, other expenses and management changes must be considered.
“Balance input costs and your projected return on investment to determine if multi-species grazing is the right choice for you,” he said. “For example, fencing upgrades to keep smaller species in and help deter predators is one of the larger up-front considerations in terms of labor and cost.”
Moreover, Reynolds said “just because sheep and cattle are in the same pasture, doesn’t mean the cattle will keep predators away from the sheep,” adding that this can be a significant issue in certain areas, nationally.
Elliott said another consideration concerning multi-species grazing is veterinary care: ensuring a local veterinarian is comfortable caring for whichever species producers intend to raise.
But, in the end, when it comes to multi-species grazing, he said producers don’t have to go it alone: some cattle, sheep and goat producers have found success working together.
“I’ve seen very successful operations where a cattle producer brings in sheep or goats from a different ranch for summer grazing,” he said. “The cattle rancher benefits from weed control and pasture management, while the sheep or goat producer benefits from access to high-quality pasture for their animals. It’s a win-win.”