Multispecies grazing

by Tamara Scully

It’s got some big advantages, but it’s not quite as simple as it might sound. Grazing multiple species of livestock together in the same pastures, either simultaneously or successively, requires an understanding of pasture growth, health and biology. It also requires a working knowledge of how each species of livestock grazes, their nutritional needs and their handling.

“I was taught in college that you plant one or two species of pasture forages, and then you graze them continuously with a single livestock species,” Lee Rinehart, ag specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT) New Hampshire regional office, said in a recent webinar. “You’ve all seen it. Closely grazed pastures with mature stalks and less palatable plants. Livestock spread all over the pasture, selecting the newest growth – causing the eventual demise of the best forages.”

But that isn’t the best way to make use of available pasture, nor is it conducive to promoting soil health and building pasture resiliency. Luckily, today’s grazers are ready for change.

Benefits of Diversity

Diversity in pasture forages (adding perennials, annuals and cover crops in the grazing mix) is on the rise. This brings stability to the pasture, benefits soil health and can provide the nutrition needed to support multiple species of livestock on the same land. Grazing multiple species of livestock with different foraging habits on a diverse pasture creates a healthier, more resilient system.

“A multitude of forage species in the pasture becomes even more stable, under higher foraging pressure, with two or more species of livestock,” Rinehart said. “It increases the carrying capacity of your pastures. This is probably one of the most biologically and economically viable systems that is available to producers.”

Multispecies grazing increases the biological efficiency of the land. Each species of livestock grazes in its own unique manner. Combining complementary grazers means the available forages are grazed at a more equal rate, thus avoiding the negative selective pressures that occur when some forages are grazed to the ground while others are ignored.

Rinehart cited research which shows that adding sheep to a cattle pasture increases pasture productivity by 20% over grazing cattle alone. Adding cattle to a sheep pasture also has productivity benefits, increasing it by 8%.

Cattle primarily eat grass, and consume about 70% of their pasture intake from grasses. They are considered primary grazers. Cattle only utilize forbs for 15% of their needs, and browse for the other 15%. Sheep prefer to graze on grass for about 50% of their needs, relying on forbs and browse for 30% and 20%, respectively, making them intermediate grazers. Goats prefer browse for 60% of their needs, with grass weighing in at 30% and forbs at 10%.

These grazing preferences can be taken advantage of by producers through mimicking the natural system found in grasslands and savannas. The diversity of forages that occur in nature allows the land to support a variety of animal species without compromising animal or pasture health. In fact, the action of a variety of grazing methods positively shapes the landscape by “stimulating the biological action that is going on in the ground,” Rinehart said.

Practical Considerations

Fencing must be adequate to contain all the species in the pasture. Cattle fencing is not effective for goats, who are best contained with woven wire fencing with electrical offset wires on the top and the bottom. Sheep aren’t going to be contained by barbed wire, unlike cattle, but high tensile fencing or polywire will do the trick for both species. Woven wire will work for sheep but not cattle.

Parasite loads can be reduced by integrating a variety of species on the pasture. Chickens are primarily seed eaters, but in rotation following cattle or small ruminants will reduce the number of insects as they eat larvae from the manure. The most larvae will be present two to five days after sheep or cattle leave the pasture.

Grazing each paddock for less than four days prevents grazing lower than six inches in height. Resting pastures for 40 days disrupts the parasite life cycle. Cattle and small ruminants do not share the same parasite infections, so grazing them together will not cause parasite loads to increase.

Handling facilities must be adequate and appropriate for each species. Small ruminants don’t need chutes with sides as tall or wide as cattle do. The safety of the worker, as well as the animal, is paramount. All handling facilities need to be constructed on level ground.

“Accidents are more likely to happen in the pens than out on the pasture,” Rinehart emphasized. “Handling can be very stressful for you and for the animals.”

Adding Species

It’s fine to add one ewe or goat for each cattle on pasture without having to adjust stocking rates. After that, it’s important to assess the makeup of the pasture forages alongside the grazing habits of the animals.

The goal of multispecies grazing is to get more from the pasture without doing any harm to soil health. Finding the species mix that will generate more gain from the pasture than any single species alone, while promoting soil health, is key.

“Leaving half of the forage volume in the pasture after grazing is crucial. It’s critical for maintaining soil cover and for allowing adequate plant regrowth – and for adding carbon back into the soil,” Rinehart said. “When adding animals, you don’t want to add more than the pasture can sustain.”

Dietary overlap, competition and the diversity of forages all influence the number of each species that can be supported on the same pasture. NCAT’s Multispecies Grazing publication (attra.ncat.org/viewhtml/?id=244) goes in depth into calculating these factors to determine stocking rate.

“Pigs and poultry both have an awesome place in multispecies grazing scenarios and each contribute greatly to the pasture regeneration, and also to the benefits of income,” Rinehart said.

Pigs don’t get most of their high-energy and protein needs met on pasture, but require supplemental grains. They are, however, excellent consumers of high-quality forages and can be used to renovate pastures or add fertility through their manure. The biggest challenge is rotating them frequently to prevent overgrazing. They also need space for wallowing. Fifteen to 20 pigs, or four to seven sows, per acre is standard.

Llamas and alpacas are intermediate grazers, offer predator protection and have the benefit of income from fiber. Donkeys will graze a large variety of plants, and they browse well, as well as offering protection to smaller livestock.

Adding uniformity to pasture grazing by managing multiple species on the same land results in better pasture and soil health while increasing productivity of the land, and offers a diverse income stream for farmers. Multispecies grazing, through better utilization of the existing pasture forages, can add resiliency to any operation.

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