In a natural situation, several species of animals utilize the plants in an ecosystem because they have different dietary preferences and grazing behaviour. This complementary grazing is healthiest for the land and forage, keeping the plants in ecological balance, according to Dr. Karen Launchbaugh, Professor of Rangeland Ecology at the University of Idaho.
Environmental factors (soils, climate, fire, etc.) have the most impact on what kind of plants grow in a certain area, but grazing preferences of livestock and wildlife also have a strong influence. If only one species of grazer is present, the plant community changes as preferred forage is heavily utilized and gives way to less-desired plants that have little or no grazing pressure.
“The key is to have a mix of species that match the vegetation, helping keep the plant community healthy and stable. Otherwise, over time you may see huge swings between brush and grass, unless you use a complementary grazing strategy to utilize all the plants. This includes wildlife use,” says Launchbaugh.
Single-species grazing ultimately has a negative impact on plant composition of grazing land. After many years of cattle-only grazing, preferred grass species decline and less desirable grasses, forbs and browse increase. Using multiple species of livestock helps spread grazing pressures across a wider variety of plants, reducing the chance for certain plants to develop a competitive edge over others.
Some range managers in the U. S. think the increasing problem of invasive weeds on public lands is a direct result of declining sheep numbers. Some of the worst weeds today on cattle ranges (spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, yellow star thistle, etc.) are readily eaten by sheep and goats.
Adding another species of livestock to a cattle operation has benefits. Advantages include more efficient use of pastures and better weed control since different species of livestock prefer different plants, control of brush when browsers are included in the species mix, more parasite control since internal parasites are host specific, and more income per acre if you can accommodate more animals. Disadvantages include the need for more facilities, labour and management in some situations.
Sheep or goats do a better job of utilizing certain weeds than cattle. “If you use multi-species grazing, there will be some animals — whether cattle, sheep or goats, that would eat those plants,” says Dr. Burt Staniar of Pennsylvania State University. Then the weeds won’t go to seed and may eventually die out because most of them are annuals or biennials. This type of weed control is more effective, efficient and environmentally friendly than use of herbicides.
“Multi-species grazing is one of the few sustainable ways to accomplish pasture management goals,” says Launchbaugh. “If we don’t use different species of animals, we must use herbicides, mowing, and other tactics.”
The same is true for parasite control. “Generally there are different parasites in different species. They can’t mature in the wrong host. You can break the life cycle of most parasites by using multi-species grazing,” says Staniar. This works best if you use different species rotationally and separately. When cattle worm eggs hatch and larvae move onto grass plants, if eaten by a sheep those larvae won’t survive to mature and lay eggs. When the plant regrows after being eaten, the parasites are no longer on that plant and it is safer to eat.
Cattle can act as “vacuum cleaners” to ingest sheep worm larva, and vice versa, when these species follow each other in a grazing rotation system. This can be a good companion strategy to deworming, since many common parasites are becoming resistant to drugs. Goats and sheep share some parasites, grazing them together does not improve parasite control. Yet goats stay relatively free of internal parasites if given adequate room with enough browsing. Worm eggs pass through the animal in manure, and hatching larvae travel a short distance up blades of grass. Goats will only become heavily infected with parasites if forced to graze at ground level.
Grazers prefer not to eat plants next to their own manure (perhaps this is nature’s way to minimize parasite load) and leave some forage ungrazed unless they are short on food. They will, however, eat near other species’ manure. Thus multi-species grazing results in more uniform use of forage — increasing total pasture productivity.
DIFFERENT GRAZING HABITS
Cattle and sheep have traditionally been used together and more completely utilize a pasture than either species alone, since cattle tend to prefer grass and some legumes while sheep prefer legumes, then forbs and grass. Sheep eat some weeds that cattle won’t. Cattle eat some of the taller, more mature plants that sheep don’t like. Due to different preferences they make better use of the entire pasture.
When goats are added to the mix, or used with cattle, there is more diverse use of plants since goats prefer forbs and brush, then grass, before they’ll touch legumes. They prefer browsing to grazing. Goats will eat brush as high as they can reach, standing on their hind legs to trim back willows and other woody invaders of pastureland. Goats are typically top-down grazers; they eat high brush before grazing down to soil level, and will also graze along fencelines before grazing the center of a pasture. They never overuse grass.
As a rule of thumb, goats eat highest, cattle eat at intermediate level, and sheep graze closer.
Goats are being used in many regions for brush and weed control. They can be beneficial in helping reclaim pastureland that has gone to brush and/or weeds. In some instances ranchers fence them onto areas of pasture that need brush/weed reduction. On rangeland, herds of goats are kept on specific areas by herders.
As stated by Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Rangeland Management Specialist, cattle diets are typically 70 per cent grass. Goat diets are about 60 per cent browse (bushes and trees). Sheep diets average about 50 per cent grass, 30 per cent forbs and 20 per cent 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 Sedivec’s area of North Dakota, ranchers can add one sheep or 1.5 goats to most pastures without adjusting cattle numbers. If undesirable plants like leafy spurge make up more than 40 per cent of a pasture, he says you can add two sheep per cow or two to 2.5 goats per cow. In pastures with large amounts of brush or weeds that goats will eat, the number of goats that can be added to a cattle pasture may be much higher.
The biggest advantage of multi-species grazing is in large unimproved pastures like rangeland, rather than in a lush cultivated pasture of tame grasses. Stocking rates of any species in a multi-species mix depends on having a variety of plants — grass, forbs, brush. If pastures are a monoculture of tame grass plants, the animals would all be competing for the same forage.
In rough country, sheep and goats can be compatible with cattle to provide greater utilization of forage. Sheep and goats tend to use steeper, rockier land where cattle generally prefer not to go. In some regions sheep can be grazed in winter on pastures where there’s no water for cattle, since sheep can utilize snow more effectively.
Multi-species grazing on certain pastures can increase livestock production by 25 per cent, on average, as shown in numerous trials. Compared with cattle-only grazing, sheep and cattle together have been shown to increase production per unit area by 10 to 53 per cent, depending on the situation.
Competition for forage is always greater for animals of the same species. Grazing pressure is therefore lower, and individual animal performance higher, at the same stocking rates under multi-species grazing management than single-species grazing. Studies have shown that sheep grazed in combination with cattle gained 12 to 126 per cent more (an average of 30 per cent more, across the board) than sheep grazed alone. Cattle grazed with sheep had gains of up to 21 per cent above cattle-only grazing. The key is to make sure total stocking rate does not exceed carrying capacity of the pastureland.
“From an economic standpoint, the additional livestock gives you more potential,” says Launchbaugh. You don’t have all your eggs in one basket. “Often you can make a little money on one species when the market for the other is down.”
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Adding another species or two in a cattle operation requires extra labour and expense, such as more secure fencing to contain sheep or goats. In many instances you can simply add an electric wire. Barbedwire fences can be augmented by adding offset electric wire or a few extra strands of barbed wire. You also need to make sure water troughs are low enough for sheep, or add stepping blocks around the troughs so the animals can climb higher.
In large pastures or rangeland, problems of species interaction or bullying (cattle not letting sheep or goats drink at a trough, or a ram chasing cows away) are minimized. In smaller pastures this can be a problem. These challenges can be overcome by rotating one species through a pasture system ahead of the other or putting creep fencing or gates around part of the watering area to allow smaller animals to enter.
If you don’t want to own sheep or goats, or don’t want the labour involved in lambing or kidding, another option is to lease pasture to someone with sheep or goats. They come in and graze, then take the animals home again.
One caution: if sheep are grazing with cattle, don’t use a mineral mix that contains copper. Levels of copper found in commercial mineral mixes for cattle are too high for sheep and can be toxic. If you plan to add another species to your cattle operation, do your homework. It also pays to start small and learn from experience as you go. It takes more management, but can be a great benefit to your land and pastures in the long run, and can add to your income if you do it right.
AN OLD IDEA IS NEW AGAIN
Multi-species grazing is a very old idea that is being recognized again. “The original literature on multi-species grazing years ago focused on it as a way to increase stocking rate — by having a mix of animals that could utilize the whole resource,” says Launchbaugh. The old term was complementary grazing, since various animals complement one another in their diet preferences. It was mainly a mix of cattle and sheep, with goats used in steeper country. This enables the cattleman to have more useable forage for cattle and more production from the land, producing additional products such as sheep/goat meat and/or wool/goat hair.
“When I was growing up, many farmers had cows and sheep — often grazing sheep in yards and barnyards to get rid of weeds that grow up between the parked equipment. Some people also had goats for this purpose,” says Launchbaugh. Then stockmen went away from this idea and tried to maximize production in a single area. “Now this idea has come again, but for a new reason. Multi-species grazing is now used for sustainability and ecological health, and becoming very popular,” she says.
GOATS AND SHEEP LOVE WEEDS
Certain plants are not eaten by cattle. Goats can be the heroes — converting weeds and invasive brush into meat and milk. They readily eat, and thrive on, pigweed, ragweed, poison ivy, dock, sedge, black locust, autumn olive, mulberry, wild roses (briars), blackberry brambles, honeysuckle and many other undesirable plants. Some of these plants contain good nutrient/ protein levels and have greater nutrient values than pasture grasses. Some plants that are toxic to cattle can be safely eaten by goats, including hemlock, poison oak, yellow star thistle and several species of mustard. Plants that are toxic to cattle that won’t harm sheep include leafy spurge, tall larkspur, tansy ragwort and pine needles.
Leafy spurge is a huge problem in some regions because cattle won’t eat it and it keeps spreading — reducing availability of desirable forage and limiting the number of cattle the pasture will support. Sheep and goats readily eat leafy spurge, once acclimated to it, and show good weight gains, according to Dr. Karen Launchbaugh. “This weed has a high protein level. Sheep and goats can convert a noxious weed into economic gain.”
Over time, keeping these plants grazed will stress and weaken them, reducing seed production — reducing density of infestations to more tolerable levels. Studies have shown that multi-species grazing can reduce leafy spurge densities by 80 to 90 per cent after three to five years of grazing. Sheep and goats can maintain control of this plant in inaccessible or environmentally sensitive areas where herbicides can’t be used.
Using goats instead of herbicides to reduce unwanted forbs and brush is more economical than using herbicides, more environmentally-safe, and at the same time can produce an extra crop from the land. Goats also reduce fire danger by eating brush or stripping the leaves before they dry and produce a fire hazard. Goats can eat about 25 per cent of their body weight each day in plant matter, so this equates to a lot of weed and brush control. They’ll clean up briars and brambles and problem weeds like musk thistles that tend to take over more area. Standing on their hind legs, they can graze brush up to six feet high, opening up some of the under story to let sunlight through so more grass can grow. Goats are an inexpensive (or even profitable) way to renovate a pasture and improve carrying capacity.