Grazing several species of livestock can prove beneficial for pastures

Multi-species grazing is an old idea becoming popular again, claims University of Idaho’s Karen Launchbaugh, a rangeland ecology professor.

She sees the technique as a way of keeping plant communities in healthy balance and more stable, since certain animals eat plants the others won’t. “One example is cattle and deer. You can’t maintain good deer habitat without cattle, or grass will take over. Forbs and brush — the mainstay of deer diet — will be crowded out,” she says.

Conversely, if there are no deer, sheep or goats to keep brush and forbs in check, those plants take over and there’s less grass for cattle.

Key Points

• Cattle, sheep and goats have different dietary preferences.

• Grazing more than one species fully utilizes available plants.

• Complementary grazing of several species keeps plants in ecological balance.

“Original literature focused on it as a way to increase stocking rate by having a mix of animals that could utilize the whole resource. The old term was ‘complementary grazing.’ It was usually a mix of cattle and sheep, with goats using the steeper country,” she says. Multiple grazers enable producers to have more forage for cattle, while at the same time producing additional income from sheep and goat meat, along with wool or hair.

You don’t need to have the animals in the same pastures at the same time. “They can follow one another in strategic rotation systems, using various plants at the best time,” says Launchbaugh. In intensively grazed pastures, rotating different species can reduce parasite load because the parasite life cycle is broken by alternating species, she notes.

Raising several species is similar to having portfolio diversification with more financial stability, she points out. “Historically, you could make a little money on one species when the other market was down,” she adds.

You also get more production per acre from properly managed multi-species grazing than with a single species, with more uniform use of the vegetation resource and more total animals in the pasture, she explains. In some regions, sheep can be grazed in winter on certain pastures where there’s no water for cattle, since sheep can utilize snow, says Launchbaugh.

Weed and brush control

“Multi-species grazing is one of the few sustainable ways to maintain healthy pasture,” she says. “If we don’t use this tool, we must resort to other tactics like herbicides and mowing or brush hogging.” In some regions, ranchers and land managers hire people with sheep or goats to graze areas where invasive plants like leafy spurge grow. “Some people make their living managing vegetation, by herding sheep or goats in certain target areas,” says Launchbaugh.

Sheep can be used to control larkspur to prevent cattle losses. “Sheep like it, and it’s not toxic to them; they can be herded through these areas ahead of the cattle, eating and trampling the larkspur,” she says.

“When I was growing up, many farmers had both cows and sheep, and often grazed the sheep in yards and barnyards to get rid of the weeds that grew up between the parked equipment,” says Launchbaugh.

Ranchers can reclaim brushy pastures with sheep and goats. Goats, especially, eat more browse than cattle. “In arid regions with extensive fuel loads, goats can reduce the brush, and cattle are very good at reducing total biomass to reduce fire danger,” she says.

Multi-species grazing is being used to improve ecological health. Launchbaugh says the animals you choose will depend on whether you want to reduce brush or just have a complementary grazing strategy.

Smith Thomas is from Salmon, Idaho.


Karen Launchbaugh

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.