Articles on forages, animals, and grazing systems
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Extension Forage Specialist
University of Kentucky
Phone: (859) 257-3358
Fax: (859) 323-1952
Grazing two or more animal species in a pasture-based system can increase forage utilization and efficiency. This method can also be used to renovate pastures by controlling certain forages, weeds, and brush that one livestock species may not graze. Each species of livestock are unique in the manner in which they graze and in what they prefer to graze. When deciding which species to add to a grazing system, it is best to evaluate current plant species on the farm and determine which are not being grazed. Knowing how different species graze, what they prefer, and possible obstacles is essential before deciding what will be effective on a particular farm.
Cattle, sheep, and goats are commonly used for multi-species grazing. The manner that these animals graze can differ significantly. Cattle are graziers that rely on forages that can be grabbed by the tongue to be pulled into the mouth and bitten off. Goats mainly graze at head height and above by standing on their back feet and are known as browsers. Sheep typically graze with their heads down but occasionally will graze at head height and above. Because of their split upper lip and smaller head, sheep typically graze closer to the ground than cattle and prefer to graze the smaller,
more tender forages. Topography of a farm can create another possible advantage for adding sheep and/or goats to an operation because they are more adapted to grazing on steep terrain or rocky areas while cattle prefer moderate slopes and flatter pastures. Sheep, goats, and cattle are capable of producing different marketable products allowing one to diversify their income.
Grazing multiple species not only allows for increased stocking density and improved forage utilization but can also decrease undesirable plant populations. Although they are not as selective in what they graze, cattle usually graze the common grasses and legumes and leave less desirable forages such as weeds and forbs. Goats, on the other hand, prefer to browse woody brush, shrubs, forbs, and many problem weeds such as willow, pigweed, thistles, stinging nettle, and curly dock. Goats are also good for control of blackberry brambles, multiflora rose,
honeysuckle, and more. Sheep often choose to graze forbs over grasses and can be also used to control many weeds. Cattle will graze the taller grass that sheep may reject.
There are some potential obstacles to consider when adding another species to a grazing system. Different species may require different parasite control, fencing, mineral supplements, and management practices.
Small ruminants are more susceptible to internal parasites which will increase labor demand for management. Because parasites in cattle cannot survive in sheep and goats and vice versa, grazing multiple species can decrease gastrointestinal parasite loads and slow resistance to anthlementics. Parasites are usually found in the first four inches of forage growth so if parasite loads are high, cattle can be grazed first to consume a large amount of these parasites using the leader-follower grazing system to reduce parasites in the small ruminants.
Fencing modifications will likely have to be made if small ruminants are added to a cattle operation. While adult cattle can usually be contained using a one-wire temporary electric fence, sheep and goats will not be contained by one wire. It is suggested that a five wire fence be used to contain small ruminants. Woven wire or netted fencing is recommended for the most effective fencing. Electric fence is also used to keep predators out.
Predators are a greater problem when grazing small ruminants. Electric fencing is a useful tool to keep predators out. Having cattle in with smaller livestock may decrease the possibility of losing small livestock to predators. Having a guard dog, donkey, mule, or llama in the pasture can be effective at keeping predators out.
Supplying necessary minerals is another obstacle to consider. Sheep cannot tolerate the levels of copper that are required by cattle. There is a possibility of losing sheep if they are grazed with cattle and cattle mineral supplements are accessible by sheep. Using the leader-follower technique and moving minerals with each species can eliminate this problem. Knowing and providing the required minerals for each species is important.
Multi-species grazing can improve pasture utilization, increase pasture quality, increase the carrying capacity of the land, control weeds and brush, and may increase overall production and income of a farm. It is important to consider the benefits and possible obstacles of using this system.