Benefitting on multi-species grazing | TSLN.com

Benefitting on multi-species grazing

Loretta Sorensen

Photo by Loretta SorensenGeorge Wagner's goats have helped eliminate a host of weeds and woody plants that had overtaken his pastures outside Winnetoon, NE. They are pictured here feeding on buckbrush, which they very effectively destroying after two seasons of grazing.

When Winnetoon native George Wagner returned home after 20 years of military service in Tennessee, he wanted to make the most of his and his father’s pastureland in northeast Nebraska.

In surveying what amounted to more than 700 acres of rolling hills that formed two different pasture sites, Wagner found much of the land was scarred by 1930s farming practices that disrupted the land’s natural order.

As perennial grasses died out, the stage was set for growth of buckbrush, Cedar trees and less desirable plants. Wagner knew he would have to develop a plan to improve pasture quality if he wanted to successfully graze cow-calf pairs.

“I know farmers in the area who ran goats with cattle a few years,” Wagner says. “Goats eat broad-leaved plants cows pass up. They really like leafy spurge. Once the farmers improved their land, they sold the goats. A few years later the pastures were weedy and they had the same problems they started with. I’m making the goats a permanent part of my grazing plan.”

Research has shown goats’ diets consist of about 70 percent non-grassy species. Goats prefer non-grass plants but will eat grass if that’s all that’s offered. They don’t usually compete with cattle for grass.

Wagner notes it takes proper management to ensure goats and cattle aren’t reaching for the same forage.

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“You obtain more value from the pastures by producing meat with plants cattle won’t eat,” Wagner says. “You have to monitor the impact each herd is having where they graze. Goats prefer shorter grasses and eat some grass cows trample. Sometimes my goats graze ahead of the cattle and sometimes they graze behind them. It depends on what kind of impact I need to have on the paddock they’re grazing.”

By browsing between five and seven feet on larger trees, goats kill branches by defoliation and strip bark from branches and trunks up to three inches in diameter. Goats also control tree seedlings and are highly effective in controlling growth of new trees in an area where established trees were cut and/or burned.

Finding a balance of forage for the goats so they have opportunity for optimal gain means Wagner grazes them on different areas of the pasture, not giving them only areas of sumac or buckbrush. Grasses trampled by the goats and cattle provide organic material that also helps improve the pasture’s soils.

“Goats will graze musk thistle, ragweed and some grasses cattle overlook,” Wagner says. “They have a heavier impact on weeds than cattle do, which means weeds are no longer an issue. If I look into the tall grass in the pasture, I still see a few buckbrush leaves and some musk thistles. They’re not eradicated but they aren’t an issue. If I mismanage the grassland, the brush and weeds will return in short order.”

Neither cattle nor goats eat 100 percent of the grasses found in the pasture. Wagner points out that his grazing plan is intended to trample some grass and return it to the soil to build organic matter.

“Organic matter in the soil is like having money in a savings account,” he says. “As the soil gets richer, more and better grass grows, which means you can put more livestock on it.”

Even if Wagner hadn’t developed a multi-species grazing plan, he doesn’t think he’d achieve the same level of weed and brush control he’s seeing through use of the goats.

“It wouldn’t be feasible to bring in herbicides to control trees and brush in these pastures,” Wagner says. “The landscape is just too rough and remote. With all the rolling hills it would be nearly impossible to effectively apply chemicals to control weeds and woody plants.”

Improving his pasture’s terrain to some degree is part of Wagner’s grazing strategy. He’s observed improvement not just in the species of forbs found in the pastures but also in some areas where erosion left bare or washed out patches of land.

“I have photos of areas where soil has started filling in since the land is being better managed,” Wagner says. “With what I call cat steps, I see the cattle impact that area one way and graze forage there. Goats impact it another way and little by little those areas are filling in with soil and grass.”

Stocking rate of goats to cattle varies with each grazing location. A rule of thumb established by researchers is one goat per cow in pastures with minimal forbs and woody plants. Wagner currently runs 28 Boer doe/kid pairs and 25 cow/calf pairs.

“We’re pretty much using one-to-one stocking rates,” Wagner says. “As the pasture recovers we’re looking at increasing the cattle and goat herds to 30 pairs each. As I add more fences I’ll be able to increase my livestock numbers.”

Wagner has adopted a livestock watering system which is low enough for the goats yet has the volume for the cow herd. Bringing in this type of water tank is something which will allow the goats and cattle to run together in the future as a means to achieve correct impact and might add reduced labor requirements.

“I make sure no does are bred late in the fall,” Wagner says. “I start kidding on pasture about May 20. I keep the goats in one herd year round and young bucks need to be separated from the does no later than September or they start breeding them back. So the day I wean is the day I sell. That’s always in September.”

Market prices for goats are generally better later in the year but selling later isn’t Wagner’s best option right now.

“It’s pretty difficult to get a stock trailer into the pasture once winter starts setting in,” he says. “Down the road, as my focus turns from improving pasture to increasing profits from my goats, I’ll probably sell later. For now this is the best process.”

Through trial and error Wagner found the best goat market for his operation. A market-ready goat weighs between 50 and 80 pounds. While $1.07/pound doesn’t generate a large amount of income, it does add value to Wagner’s process.

While he traps coyotes on a regular basis, Wagner respects the need for a balance of coyotes in his area. He doesn’t use guard dogs or any type of predator protection for the goats. They are separated from the cattle by a fence, but both herds constantly graze in proximity to one another.

“I’ve learned a few things the hard way with the coyotes,” he says. “Disposing of a goat carcass in a compost pile wasn’t a good idea. The coyotes dug it out and once they got a taste for goat they were pretty aggressive.”

As he monitors improvements in his soil, Wagner is noticing the return of other animal species that are now able to thrive in the regenerating pastures. His documentation of dung beetle activity is giving him new insight on the symbiotic relationship between the goats and the cows.

“Dung beetles bury goat and cattle droppings which greatly increases organic material in soil,” Wagner says. “I’ve identified 17 different species of dung beetles and found that different species follow the goats and cattle at different times of the year. During the hottest part of the summer, dung beetles following the goats move to the cattle. I don’t have scientific data to verify it, but it seems that helps reduce the cows’ fly load during that time. I’m still gathering information about the beetles, but it appears that there may be more benefits to multi-species grazing than what we realized.”

Wagner has garnered a lot of knowledge about the positive impact of goats over the past 10 years but he believes he will learn at least that much again in the years ahead.

“The logistics of every operation will be different,” Wagner says. “I’ve found a system that’s working well for me. As the condition of the pastures change, I’ll keep adjusting my grazing plans to make the most of the livestock and the land.”