Grazing sheep with cattle is an old idea, but it may a good new way for beginning farmers and ranchers to get started, says David Ollila, South Dakota State University extension sheep specialist.
You don't need more land – you just mix the sheep in with the cattle. The sheep don't reduce the available forage for the cattle because they graze different plants than the cows. The pasture even improves. Everyone wins.
At least that's the idea. But aren't any hard numbers to back up the idea yet. SDSU researchers hope to get them. They have launched a multi-species grazing project to study the impact on range health and livestock production.
"The idea of grazing sheep and cattle together -- at a one-to-one stocking rate -- isn't a new concept," says Ken Olson, SDSU extension beef specialist. "It's an age-old piece of rancher wisdom that has floated around for a long time. In fact, I can find references to it in Range Management texts from the 1930s."
The research that has been done has looked at range health when 50% of a cattle herd is replaced with its animal unit equivalent of sheep and both species graze together. For example, if the stocking rate for a particular pasture is 100 cows, then 50 cows would be removed and replaced with 250 sheep because five sheep is the animal unit equivalent to one cow. SDSU researchers will be looking adding one ewe for every cow.
Historical evidence tells us that for as long as South Dakota's grasslands have existed, multitudes of species grazed them concurrently. Species diversity on rangeland enhances plant diversity and overall range health says, Roger Gates, SDSU Extension rangeland management specialist.
"Characteristics of healthy rangeland are a great diversity of plants and, in a natural system, a great diversity of herbivores," Gates says.
Because cattle and sheep prefer different plant species -- cattle tend to graze more grasses while sheep tend to graze more forbs and shrubs -- running them together should improve range quality and quantity.