Years ago, I read a great book titled Small-Scale Livestock Farming by Carol Ekarius. It was in this book that I first came across the idea of multispecies grazing. I immediately fell in love with this concept, and over time I have continued to find more and more reasons to believe this may be the best way to manage animals. When we look at nature, which is supposed to be our guide or teacher in Permaculture, what do we see (Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact)? In healthy ecosystems (and this is key), there is a multitude of species all occupying a single area (Permaculture Principle Eight: Integrate Rather than Segregate).
If you’ve ever seen a National Geographic video about the savanna, you see that this is how animals live in the wild. They still mainly associate with their own species, and this can be loose or strict, depending on the species, the season, the environment, and many other factors, but the point is that they are mixed. No species, plant or animal, exists in a vacuum. Many of us are rather against monocropping of plants, but I wonder if we shouldn’t be against mono-species animal husbandry for the same reasons. Although, I have to admit that “monocropping” is a catchier phrase.
Modern farmers/ranchers have been experimenting with the idea of multispecies grazing for a few decades already. Some recommend what is called the Leader-Follower system. This is where the manager will allow, for example, sheep into the pasture first. Within a day or three, the sheep are rotated to the next pasture, and the pregnant/lactating cows follow onto the pasture that the sheep just left. Then the steers and dry cows follow, then the goats follow, and so on. This management method works, but I don’t think it is the best method.
Alternatively, some land managers are using a single mixed herd. All the sheep and cattle and goats and maybe even pigs are put into a pasture together. The animals sort it all out themselves. I have met and read about a number of farmers/ranchers who initially had split herds and were running a leader-follower system, but they eventually decided to combine them into a single mixed herd. They had just as good results (sometimes better), the work was easier because it was only moving a single herd at a time, and the land usually improved because there was more rest time between grazing. And again, this is how nature does it!
There are a few things to keep in mind. Not all land is immediately ready for multispecies grazing. If a pasture has been managed for cattle for decades, then it may not be a great pasture for goats. Goats prefer browse (shrubby, woody plants), and if the pasture has no browse in it, they will not be content. They will constantly be trying to escape – even more than they normally do. They may not be as healthy as they would be if they were allowed to eat the way they were designed to eat. So, in this case, it may be best to add sheep. Sheep prefer grasses to browse. They will compete with the cattle for grass, so we can’t add too many sheep to our cattle herd, but the sheep will eat many of the plants that the cattle do not like and that we often consider “weeds”. Remember, if a weed is eaten, it is no longer considered a weed! I’ve heard it joked, “If a sheep eats a weed, its called a forb!” Of course, you need to know that a forb is an herbaceous/non-grass plant for this joke to be funny. But the bottom line is that we need to match the animals to the land’s resources. The more diverse a pasture, the better it is for multispecies grazing, especially the smaller ruminants like sheep and goats.
Next, multispecies grazing requires good record keeping and observation. It is important to keep records of individual animals, breeds, and species. Is one animal not producing offspring? Is one breed or hybrid outproducing the others? This is how we will know how best to manage our animals. And compared to conventional animal management, it is a lot more fun to sit and observe your animals. We get to know them and learn about them, so that we can make intelligent management decisions that improve our herd, our land, and our profit.
There are a variety of things to consider when choosing to work with a multispecies herd. We will need to learn more (which I love). It is easier to become an expert on one species, but it takes some work to become an expert on three or four or seven species. We need to consider if/how we will handle, process, and market these other species. Fencing requirements will be different compared to a single species herd. We will need to consider predators if we are adding smaller animals to our herd. The good news is that there are more and more people out there practicing multispecies grazing. The answers to your questions are out there.
Following is my list of the Top 10 Benefits of Multispecies Grazing. I think this provides more than enough reason to consider it on our land.
- Mimics Nature. Described above, but this is the most compelling reason for me.
- Parasite Control. Cattle and sheep/goats do not share internal parasites. Therefore, cattle will serve as “vacuums” for the sheep/goat internal parasites (and vice versa). This breaks the parasite’s lifecycle and decreases the parasite load in a field. Sheep and goats do share parasites, and this is something to keep in mind, but it is not a reason to avoid mixing sheep and goats in a herd.
- Utilize More Plants/More Uniform Grazing. Different species prefer different plants.
- Cattle prefer grass
- Sheep prefer forbs (“weeds”) over grasses and grasses over shrubs
- Goats perfer browse over grasses and forbs, and goats can tolerate plants with more tannins
- Grazing next to manure – most species don’t eat where they poop, but many animals don’t mind eating near where other species do. This means more uniform grazing.
- Improved “Weed” Control
- Controls “Undesireable” Plants such as Brambles, Multiflora Rose, Hardwood Seedlings/Sprouts, Lespedeza/Sericea, Knapweed, Ironweed, etc. Goats are especially equipped to deal with these plants.
- Controls Plants in “Difficult” Areas
- Public Land often has restrictions on management.
- Environmentally Sensitive Locations. This includes areas where using chemicals will directly harm an environment and/or where the public has opposition to chemical use. I disdain chemical use, and this provides an alternative to those who think chemicals are the only answer.
- Expensive to Maintain Terrain. Steep hills, rocky but weedy fields, treed pastures (savannas!) can be very time consuming to keep “trimmed”. Multispecies grazing provides a profitable answer to these management issues.
- Decreased Wildfire Fuel Loads. With more uniform grazing and more plants being eaten, especially the woody plants eaten by goats, there is less fuel to burn in wildfires.
- Increased Carrying Capacity. Carrying Capacity is defined as the environment’s maximal load (Hui 2006). Another way of saying it is the carrying capacity is the maxium stocking rate possible without inducing damage to vegetation or related resources (Bryant et al. 1978). There are many ways to calculate this, but that is a discussion for another article. The bottom line is that because different species have different forage preferences, we can add other species to an existing herd without harming the land and without interfering with the original herd’s performance. Here are some general guidelines:
- 1-2 goats can be added for every single cow without decreasing the carrying capacity. As mentioned above, goats have a dietary preference different than cattle, so they are not competing much for pasture resources.
- 1 ewe can be added for every 2 cows without decreasing carrying capacity. Sheep eat more grass than goats, and so less sheep can be added to a cattle operation. Although I have not seen any specific data, I imagine that the inverse correlation would be adding one cow for every 6-8 sheep in a sheep operation (i.e. adding cattle to an existing sheep herd).
- Increased Pounds Per Acre. This ties right into number 5 above. When we increase carrying capacity, we have an increase in meat production (or milk production).
- Increased Income/Profit Potential. This is an obvious consequence of number 5 and 6 above. It is not guaranteed, but it is a very real possibility.
- Production Security. Beef prices may drop. There may be a virus that takes down goats across the country. Bad weather may effect performance of one species… There are a number of problems that can arise when raising animals. If we put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, by raising only one species, then we have nothing to fall back on if/when catastrophe hits. There is security in diversity.
- It is fun! It is educational, entertaining, and enjoyable to see a pasture full of a variety of animals interacting with each other. Seeing a mixed herd just feels more right to me. It gives one a sense of completeness.
Multispecies grazing is not utopia, and it has its own management issues and concerns; however, I think multispecies grazing is the logical progression in the continuing advancement of sustainable and regenerative agriculture.