Forage 2022: Multispecies Grazing – Better forage utilization results in economic and ecological benefits
Multispecies grazing is one of the best ecologically and economically sustainable choices a producer can make, says Jeff Goodwin, program director of Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute.
“Diversifying livestock operations to include small ruminants takes advantage of the varied plant communities in pastures and result in increased plant biodiversity, healthy soils, and more return per acre,” Goodwin says.
Mike Wallace at the Double M Ranch in Nelson, Nebraska, rotates cattle, sheep, goats, and guardians through his native prairie pasture to economically capitalize on the diverse forages present by understanding the diet preferences of each species.
Diverse Diet Preferences are Key
Cattle, goats, and sheep naturally gravitate toward different forage; these differences are key to the advantages of multispecies grazing.
Cattle prefer grass, sheep utilize forbes or weeds, and goats love browse, which is the tips of woody plants.
Grasses make up 70 percent of the diet for cattle. Cattle graze by grasping forage with their tongue, pulling it into their mouth, and biting it off. They ingest longer, more mature grasses in the same mouthful as younger stems.
Goats are at the other end of the forage spectrum. Their diet typically consists of 60 percent browse, 20 percent grass, and 20 percent forbs, but they will consume up to 80 percent browse. They have adapted to eating browse by standing on their hind legs to reach the tender leaves and vines over their heads that are out of reach for other grazers.
Sheep consume the broadest range of forage. Their diets consist of 30 percent forbs, 50 percent grasses, and a bit of browse for good measure. Sheep prefer young tender forage. Their flexible lips and smaller heads enable them to bite off grass closer to the ground.
Fencing specific species into an area, targeted grazing, will restrict and can eliminate specific plants, says South Dakota State University Extension sheep field specialist Jaelyn Quintana.
Goats browsing bushes, cedars, and brambles will keep these species in check, allowing more forage growth. Sheep employed to control leafy spurge, larkspur, and knapweed limit the growth of these plants that are harmful to cattle.
Incorporating multiple species in a grazing rotation takes full advantage of pastures and can be used to control undesirable plants while increasing stocking rates. Early studies by John Walker in 1994, Multispecies grazing: The ecological advantage, showed a possibly increase in the productivity and carrying capacity of 20 to 25 percent when adding sheep to a cattle enterprise.
The forage preferred by sheep, goats, and cattle is not the only difference when grazing; the locations they prefer to graze also make them unique.
Grazing Location Preferences
Cattle aren’t very particular where they graze, but they do favor flatter, lowland areas.
Sheep and goats have adapted grazing behaviors to avoid predation. Both species graze on slopes and areas with a good view of surrounding land. They prefer to graze into the wind, and while they will graze with their heads down, they also graze at eye level when they can. Sheep and goats also bed down in open areas with good vantage points.
Another advantage to sheep and goats is that they require less water than cattle and contently graze farther from water sources.
While there are many benefits to multispecies grazing, there are also some difficulties that need overcome.
Concerns with Multispecies Grazing
Quintana says that parasites, predators, and fencing are the major areas of concern when adding sheep and/or goats to a cattle operation.
Adequate pasture rotation to avoid grazing vegetation lower than four inches, resting pastures to enable regrowth, and culling any individuals that present problems will address parasite concerns. The good news is that while goats and sheep share the same parasites, cattle do not. In essence, cattle or sheep and goats can “vacuum” up the parasite eggs and larvae for the other species, decreasing the potential exposure.
Another common problem with sheep and goats on pasture is predation. Predation is addressed with livestock guardian animals or by bonding the small ruminants with cattle. Guardians, dogs, llamas, and donkeys move with the flock as they graze and protect them from attack.
Bonding with cattle works in the same way. Small ruminants and cattle are introduced in a confined space so that the sheep or goats stay near the cattle when grazing. It’s like having your own group of superheroes just steps away. When threatened, the smaller species naturally seek out the cattle, who are capable of chasing off predators.
Another concern when grazing multispecies is that sheep and goats can require more substantial fencing than cattle. Installing woven wire fencing is a significant economic investment. However, some operations successfully use electric fencing to contain sheep and goats.
Transitioning to Grazing Multispecies
Noble Research Institute added sheep to their Marietta, Oklahoma ranch last year. Clark Roberts, Livestock Manager for Noble’s Coffey Ranch, says, “Instead of spraying weeds, sheep utilize those weeds and make you money.” A sheep flock preferentially capitalizes on the existing forbs, turning those weeds into another revenue stream for the operation.
Roberts didn’t have prior sheep experience, but the Dorper ewes are baaing their way into his good graces. Like most of us, he heard the saying, “sheep are just looking for a place to die.” Roberts has not found that to be the case.
“We rotate the May lambing ewes behind the cattle with one strand of hot poly wire. Depending on forage density and utilization, the flock is rotated every day to three or four days to provide the best nutrition while reducing parasite exposure. “
Roberts says that coyotes and eagles do pose a danger to the flock. “Guardian dogs are used to address the predation problem. We have found the predators are very willing to search for easier meals elsewhere.” He notes that lambing in May when there is an abundance of wild food available adds to the success of pasture lambing in coyote country.
“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 the mindset that the flock is working for the good of the ranch, rather than he working for the flock. 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 pays off in saved time and labor and avoids unneeded stress on both animals and people, Roberts believes.
“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,” Roberts says.
“The addition of a sheep flock has added another revenue stream that has been self-sustaining. The 150 percent lamb crop has paid for the ewes while capitalizing on the existing forages,” Roberts says. “Sheep and goats more readily enable producers to look outside the commodity markets to take advantage of other options that may provide a greater return on their investment.”
A Change of Approach
Most producers decide on the livestock they want to raise without considering the land and plant species present. Goodwin recommends turning this around, first looking at the land, forages, and water availability, then raising a species to match that environment.
Goodwin and Roberts agree that while raising sheep and goats has not been as romanticized as raising cattle and being a cowboy, multispecies grazing offers sustainable alternatives to spending time and money controlling weeds and brush while simultaneously improving your soils, adding another revenue stream, and providing a range of marketing options.
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