Farming Magazine - February, 2009

FEATURES

Should You Try Multi-Species Grazing?

Integrating livestock can mean better profits, land use
By Marcia Passos Duffy

Photos by Bob M. Montgomery, Unless Otherwise Noted.

Even pigs can work in a multi-species grazing environment.
 
Photo by Mimi Wheeler.
Chickens are perfectly suitable within a grazing program that involves different species.

Producing more with less is a good business model in these turbulent economic times. If you can do that while remaining a good environmental steward, it’s a win-win situation for you, your livestock and your land.

One way to achieve this is through the benefits of multi-species grazing, a “new” farming model that is actually an ancient feeding practice that has been used by farmers dating back to the dawn of agriculture.

“There are a lot of reasons why producers should consider multi-species grazing using goats, sheep, cattle and even pigs and chickens,” said Dean Oswald, extension educator for animal systems at the University of Illinois, who has overseen various multi-species grazing studies. He said it doesn’t matter which species you are combining, instead it’s the animal behavior and selection of forage species that makes the practice useful.

“Using livestock and land for multi-species grazing increases the potential for income production per acre,” says Oswald.

More species + same land = more income

Studies show that multi-species grazing, if done right, not only makes good use of land and forage resources, but also results in higher meat production.

According to the American Sheep Industry Association (www.sheepusa.org), multi-species grazing increases meat production by 24 percent versus just cattle grazing; meat production is increased by 9 percent compared to sheep-only grazing.

The organization reports that meat production gains come from increasing the carrying capacity of the land and from better individual animal performance. Individual weight gain improves significantly with multi-species grazing. Another study showed that sheep that grazed with cattle had individual weight gains from 12 to 126 percent higher than sheep that grazed alone. Cattle grazed with sheep had gains of up to 21 percent.

These improvements result from better forage available when there are more than one species of animal on a land, said Linda Coffey, an agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which conducts sustainable agriculture projects throughout the country funded under a grant from the USDA’s Rural-Business Cooperative Service (www.ncat.org).

Match up vegetation with livestock

Cows and horses prefer grass, sheep prefer forbs, and goats prefer trees and shrubs.

“A farm that grazes only cattle will soon have brush and weeds taking part of the land, and therefore will have less grass,” said Coffey.

The problem with grazing only one species on pasture is that the animal will graze and re-graze, and eventually kill out the good nutritious productive plants and cause weeds to fill in, said Oswald. “Multi-species grazing is a better way to utilize the forage you already have in the pasture,” he said.

If you have cattle or horses, adding sheep or goats will help keep the grass portion stable. On the other hand, grass can get out of control in a sheep-only pasture; when grass gets too mature, sheep won’t eat it and the quality goes down. “Let some cows graze off that tough grass, and the re-growth is much better for the sheep,” said Coffey. In addition, plants that are toxic to cattle (larkspur, leafy spurge, tansy ragwort and pine needles) do not harm sheep. There are other plants that are harmful to sheep, but won’t hurt cattle.

While grazing sheep, goats, cattle or horses together on a diverse pasture is the best scenario, any kind of multi-species grazing—even just goats and sheep together—is preferable to mono- grazing. Sheep will do a great job in controlling plants such as blackberry brambles, multiflora rose, honeysuckle and many other out of control pasture plants.

“This is a cheap way of renovating pastures, and you can sell the extra goats and kids [or sheep/lambs] for a profit, as well,” says Coffey.

If you have cattle or horses, adding sheep or goats will help keep the grass portion stable.

Turning just one species out in the pasture is also not good for internal parasite management, added Alan Richard Cobb, a sheep and meat goat extension specialist at the University of Illinois. “Sheep, goats and cattle don’t share the same internal parasites… that is a very important advantage,” said Cobb.

Coffey noted that parasites are a major concern with sheep and goats, even when they are in a pasture together with other animals. Higher concentrations of animals on a pasture worsen the infestation, but parasites don’t cross breeds; and cattle can act as “vacuum cleaners” and eat the sheep or goat worm larvae and prevent further infestations, particularly if the farm manager follows a “leader-follower” multi- species grazing approach.

Multi-species grazing is flexible and can be done either simultaneously by putting all the animals in a pasture together at one time (called “mob grazing”), or in a “leader-follower” method, which places one flock or herd through a pasture for a grazing period, then immediately follows with another flock or herd. One other method is to split the farm into different species on different pastures and rotate the species every season or year.

Goats key to pasture management

“The real benefit to multi-species grazing, no matter how you chose to do it, comes when you add goat to the mix,” said Oswald. Goats have the ability to control severe weed and brush problems, particularly in older pastures that need more management. They clean up the brambles and even some real problem weeds, such as musk thistle and poison hemlock that can be poisonous to other species. They can also graze on brush up to 6 feet high; once this kind of brush is eaten, sunlight can get underneath shrubs to stimulate the grass to grow again.

This kind of grazing can be done without a herd of cattle, noted Cobb, but adding a few cows might be beneficial to keeping the grass in check. “If you have a group of sheep and goats, you could consider adding just a few head of cattle, such as dry or pregnant dairy cows,” he says.

Poultry can also be good in a rotation since chickens reduce fly larvae that congregate in dung. Swine production can benefit from the high-quality forages that they get in pasture grazing, particularly with gestating hogs, Oswald noted.

Photo by Kimberly Stockwell-Morrison.
“Sheep, goats and cattle don’t share the same internal parasites … that is a very important advantage,” said Alan Richard Cobb, a sheep and meat goat extension specialist at the University of Illinois.

An ancient approach needs modern hands-on management

While multi-species grazing is nothing new, the way it is managed is a new idea in farming. Today, it requires an intense understanding of both the animals and the crops they eat.

“The more you are involved in it, the more ways you can see how it can be done differently and better,” said Cobb.

For the best management practices, and to determine how many animals you can graze at one time on your pastures, Cobb suggests that farmers walk among the animals every day to evaluate health and feed resources. Farmers must be flexible and adjust feeding routines according to what is happening in the fields: “If you’re doing mob grazing on a seven-day rotation and they consume all the crops before seven days are up, you have to move them and not stick to the seven-day schedule,” he says. If they don’t consume all the feed, the farmer should decrease the size of the pasture.

“The farmer needs to realize that it is the total amount of weight gain for the all the species that is important, not just the individual weight gain,” says Cobb.

Resources need to be constantly evaluated and pasture rotation is a “must,” even when a diverse variety of species are grazing on the land.

“Without this kind of hands-on management, you can overstock the resources and have more of the same problems you had when you only grazed one species,” said Cobb.

While multi-species grazing has been done successfully on larger farms in the Midwest, it is particularly suitable for smaller farms in the Northeast and is well-suited to farms with varying topography that have a variety of forage, such as hilly land. “Smaller Northeast farms are well-suited for this kind of grazing practice,” said Cobb.

Drawbacks

There are specific problems that can emerge from multi-species grazing.

1. Copper Toxicity in Sheep. The biggest problem when grazing cattle and sheep together are the copper levels in cattle feed, which are toxic to sheep. “Sheep can die of copper toxicity,” said Cobb. One solution is to put minerals up high so that cattle can reach them,  but sheep cannot.

2. Bullying Problems. While there may be “bully” problems with the larger cattle and sheep, it is more likely that rams will be aggressive to cattle. Lambing time can be troublesome as well. If an animal doesn’t fit the system, then the animal has to leave, said Cobb. “Bullying just increases stress load for not only the bullied animal, but the rest of the herd or flock.”

3. Fencing Requirements. Goats, in particular, are difficult to keep fenced in; sheep can also be troublesome to maintain in a fenced-in area. Electric fencing is generally the best solution for multi-species grazing.

4. Predators. Sheep and goats will attract predators such as coyotes and wild dogs. However, pairing them with cattle often reduces this problem.

5. Disease Transfer. While parasites are not transferred from species to species, some diseases (such as yonies disease) can be carried by sheep and transferred to cattle. Discuss multi-species grazing plans with your veterinarian first.

6. Increased Labor. Sheep and goats require more labor than cattle, particularly in hoof trimming. Sheep shearing is required in the spring.

Before you put animals together

1. Get Healthy Animals. Healthy animals are vitally important before you start a multi-species grazing program. “Make sure sheep do not have foot rot,” advised Cobb. Also, buy from a local area to ensure their adaptability to your region.

2. Line up a Sheep Shearer. The New England area has many weekend sheep shearers that will come to your farm. If you cannot find sheep shearers in your area, consider hair breeds or shedding breeds.

3. Make Sure You Have a Market. Make sure there is infrastructure, such as a slaughterhouse, available in your area for the species you are raising. Decide how you will sell the meat, either through a local co-op or retail on the farm.

4. Consider Fertility of the Land. This is particularly true of areas in New England where soil can be poor. Take a soil sample to your local cooperative extension for analysis; find out the types of forage that are growing on your land that will support the species you want to produce.

5. Use a Controlled Environment When Introducing Species. Young animals in this system will adapt quickly to a multi-species environment. The key for older animals is to make the introduction for only short periods of time, and watch carefully for potential bullying problems.

“You can raise an additional amount of livestock on your same farm without increasing your acreage. If done right, [it] will convert into more dollars per acre,” said Oswald.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.

References for more information:

www.agry.purdue.edu/Ext/forages/rotational/articles/PDFs-articles/integrated-livestock-and-forage.pdf
www.ext.vt.edu/news/periodicals/livestock/aps-97_04/aps-771.html
www.kerrcenter.com/futurefarms_08/presentations/sparks.pdf
www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/U/UNP-0007/
www.attra.org/attra-pub/multispecies.html