Benefits and Challenges of Multi-species Grazing

  1. Fairfarmhand
    1. Those who own small acreage may wonder about grazing multiple species of animals on their land. Perhaps you have a few cows and wonder if you can add a horse to the mix. Or maybe you have some brushy patches on your property and wonder if putting some goats in with your cows would be okay.

    Putting several different kinds of animals together in the same field actually is a wonderful idea. When you understand how each different species eats, you will begin to understand the benefits of adding a few different kinds of animals to your cattle farm.

    Benefits of Multi-species Grazing

    By grazing sheep or goats with your cows, you will make better use of the plants available in your field. The goats will clean up the briars and thistles, and the sheep will gobble up non-grassy, broad leafed weeds that are invading your fields, like knapweed. If you have multi-flora roses in your fields, the goats will eat them up like candy. When the weedy plants are eliminated, the good grasses will rebound, improving the pasture. This is a perfect way to renovate your field without tilling it up or using herbicides.

    Sheep also tend to graze more closely to the manure deposits. Cows won\'t eat anywhere close to where they\'ve left their droppings, and it\'s irritating to see so much good grass going to \"waste,\" especially in dry years when every stem of grass is important.

    Grazing other animals with your cows can also bring in more profit per acre, as the offspring sheep and goats can be sold for profit. This also gives farmers multiple income sources. If the price of sheep is low in a particular year, perhaps the goats or cows can help support the farmer until the price rebounds.

    Challenges of Multi-species Grazing

    One big challenge to adding other species to your pasture may be fencing. If you have planned your fences to contain animals like cows, your fences may not be up to the task of keeping a goat contained. You may need to retrofit your fences with panel wire and electric wires to keep the goats in.

    Another challenge may be social dynamics. Some animals just don\'t play well with others. Rams may push around docile dairy cows, or aggressive cows may keep the sheep or goats away from the feed. Horses are almost always dominant over all other animals in a field, so you should definitely make sure that you have enough hay feeders in the winter. When you try this arrangement, keep an eye on the social dynamics for the first few weeks and be flexible about making alternate arrangements for the animals if keeping them together isn\'t working.

    Mineral feeding may be challenging for farmers who want to combine sheep with cattle, since cattle need copper at levels that are toxic to sheep. Some farmers elevate their minerals so that the cows can reach the blocks, but the sheep can\'t. Another way of handling nutritional conflicts is to rotate the fields, keeping sheep, goats and cattle in different fields at different times and switching them around every week or two.

    Combining two or more animal species in one field can be challenging, but it is workable on a small farm.


    Photo Credit: Laura Webb, 2014

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