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Multispecies grazing can diversify income and create opportunities

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Between sheep, goats and cattle, multispecies grazing can provide many advantages to producers looking to mitigate risk, diversify income and get more from their pastures, even when forage availability is limited.

“Raising different species together is fairly common, and I’ve seen the practice grow in recent years,” says Dr. Clay Elliott, small ruminant nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition. “Multispecies grazing gives farmers and ranchers another avenue for income.”

Whether producers currently raise sheep, goats or cattle, adding another species to their operation can provide several benefits. 

pasture management

“Sheep, goats and cattle are the perfect complementary species to graze together because they aren’t always competing for the same forages,” says Elliott. “Grazing any combination of these species can help producers get more from their pastureland by turning ‘waste’ plants into meat, wool or milk.”

Goats are browsers, favoring tree limbs and leaves over the high-quality, tender grass sheep and cattle prefer. Goats are also a great option for grazing land impacted by drought as they can forage on relatively little vegetation, giving producers an additional income source without taking away the limited resources available for cattle or sheep. 

Sheep can graze grass closer to the ground than cattle, so they can utilize forage cattle can’t. One watch-out with sheep is to avoid overgrazing, which could impact the long-term productivity of pastures. 

Producers should create a pasture rotation plan and use water or supplemental nutrition sources to spread out grazing activity to help reduce the risk of overgrazing.   

Efficient forage use isn’t the only way multispecies grazing supports sustainable pasture management. Sheep and goats can help keep brush and invasive plants at bay, allowing for more grass growth for cattle and, in some cases, eliminating plants which may be toxic to cattle.

Copper supplementation

“One reason producers hesitate to implement multispecies grazing is goats and cattle have a significantly higher copper requirement than sheep, which are very copper sensitive,” says Elliott. “Copper intolerance is the major difference between these three species.”

One option to address differing copper needs is to feed all species a sheep mineral low in copper and supplement cows and goats with a bolus product once or twice a year to meet their copper needs. 

Soil testing can help determine how often cattle and goats need copper supplementation.

Another option is sequential grazing or rotating species through pastures separately rather than co-grazing. 

This allows producers to provide each species with a mineral tailored to its unique nutritional needs and avoid the added labor of administering a bolus product.

Income opportunities

Multispecies grazing also allows producers to mitigate risk by opening up additional market opportunities and gaining more income per acre of pasture.

“A cow can only maintain herself and raise one calf every year,” says Elliott. “Producers could add four to five ewes and their babies on this same acre of ground, giving them another revenue source.”

The number of animals raised per acre depends on many factors, including pasture quality, sequential or co-grazing management, water access, market availability and operational goals.

Keep in mind, reproduction rates differ by species. Sheep and goats reproduce more frequently and have more offspring than cattle. Producers should consider how quickly their sheep or goat herd will grow and plan their stocking density accordingly.

Input cost and management considerations

While there are many benefits to raising multiple species together, other expenses and management changes must be considered.

“Balance input costs and the projected return on investment to determine if multispecies grazing is the right choice,” says Elliott. “For example, fencing upgrades to keep smaller species in and help deter predators is one of the larger up-front considerations in terms of labor and cost.”

Another consideration is veterinary care. Producers need to ensure a local veterinarian is comfortable caring for whichever species they intend to raise. 

They should also evaluate their handling facilities to ensure they can accommodate large and small animals and veterinary care, and other management activities can be done safely and efficiently.

Partnership opportunities

When it comes to multispecies grazing, producers don’t have to go at it alone. Some cattle, sheep and goat producers have found success working together.

“I’ve seen very successful operations where a cattle producer brings in sheep or goats from a different ranch for summer grazing,” says Elliott. “The cattle rancher benefits from weed control and pasture management while the sheep or goat producer benefits from access to high-quality pasture for their animals. It’s a win-win.”

With some thoughtful considerations, multispecies grazing can be a great option to help operations mitigate risk, diversify income and get more from pastureland, whether they’re currently raising sheep, goats or cattle.

Purina Animal Nutrition is a national organization serving producers, animal owners and their families through more than 4,700 local cooperatives, independent dealers and other retailers throughout the U.S. Purina is headquartered in Arden Hills, Minn. and a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc. This article was published by Purina on March 7. 

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