But if you were to step back in time to the 1950s or ’60s, cattle and sheep were a common pair you would see grazing most pastures and rangelands.

Woolsey cassidy
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho
Cassidy is a contributing editor to Progressive Cattle and Progressive Forage magazines.

Some believe this grazing practice ended when wool prices dropped; others, however, believe it was simply because cattle were easier to manage. But whatever the case, some beef producers are going back to their roots, and some of those are reaping noticeable benefits.

Jim Malooley of central Tennessee began raising both cattle and sheep in 2012. Since his start as a multi-species grazier, Malooley has successfully grazed less than 200 acres with about 30 cow-calf pairs and 250 ewes and lambs.

In doing so, he has reduced the parasite load on his cow herd, increased plant diversity, reduced inputs and has become more sustainable overall.

“I am a huge advocate for multi-species grazing,” Malooley says. “I never fully understood just how much grazing multiple species together would help my operation. There isn’t just one thing it helps specifically; it all plays together as you try to mimic something similar to nature.”


Improving soil health

Malooley believes this is one of the fastest ways to improve soil health. He says it can be difficult to graze one species of livestock without altering the land composition.

The environment has a lot to do with the amount and type of forage available, but livestock also help influence which species dominate the landscape, he says.

“You can get so much more out of your pastures because these animals are so different in their taste preferences,” he explains. “You don’t end up with monocultures or getting overrun with weeds, which over time translates to improved soil health.”

A classic example is given in the University of Idaho’s publication Targeted Grazing. It notes that if cattle are grazed for several years on a diverse landscape, preferred grass species will decline while less preferred grasses, forbs and browse species will increase.

multi-species grazing

Grazing multiple species of livestock will spread grazing pressure across a wider variety of plants, reducing the tendency for less desirable species to dominate.

It has been argued that the current problem with invasive weeds has been a result of single-species grazing. Because sheep and goats tend to eat forbs (brushy plants with fleshy stems) and leaves better than cattle, they are a great method for weed control.

In fact, cattle primarily graze 70 percent grass while sheep average about 50 percent grass, 30 percent forbs and 20 percent browse. And if given the opportunity, goats will consume about 60 percent browse (twigs, tender shoots, leaves, shrubs).

In addition to their diet preferences, these animals tend to graze different parts of the landscape. Cattle prefer lower, flatter areas, which can cause degradation in riparian areas. Sheep and goats, however, will graze steep slopes and bed in upland areas.

Malooley points out that this grazing combination has positively affected his soil structure, water infiltration rate and moisture-holding capacity. These improvements have allowed him to increase his carry capacity and expand his operation.

“I think you are missing out on money if you aren’t running small ruminants with your cows,” Malooley says. “If you take this approach, your carry capacity will increase a little bit each year, you are able to produce more forage on the same site, and you will eventually be able to add more livestock. I have not only seen improved land performance but better animal performance as well.”

Improving herd health

Typically, one or more species will have an increased individual animal performance when grazed together, says Margaret Ross, a livestock extension agent with North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

One advantage is the decrease in the parasite load. Gastrointestinal parasites that will survive in the stomachs of goats or sheep will not survive in the stomach of cattle and vice versa, she says. However, for this management system to work, it is important that the land is not overgrazed.

Once parasite eggs are deposited in the manure, larvae travel only a short distance up the grass blade, she says. Animals that graze well above ground level don’t consume the parasite larvae; however, animals that graze closer to the ground ingest a greater amount of larvae.

It is important you graze the correct species together with the right amount of forage to minimize parasitic problems, not heighten them, she says.

It is critical that pastures and rangelands have enough forage available for all species that are co-grazing, Ross says. In a study conducted by the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center, cattle gained an average of 6 percent more than when grazed alone.

However, the study notes that forage availability was low and has led researchers to believe cattle gains would have been higher with an acceptable amount of forage.

Choosing the type and the number of animals

To utilize the land correctly, Tennessee State Grazing Lands soil health specialist Greg Brann recommends adding one to two ewes per cow to avoid grazing competition between animals. And depending on the forage availability and the type of forage, one to two goats can also be added per cow. “If you have a lot of briers or woody-type stuff, then you need goats.

If you have a lot of things like buttercup and other herbaceous weeds, then sheep would work as a better combination with cattle,” Brann says. “It can be a good alternative for a beginning producer that doesn’t have much of a land base to partner with someone on this type of management.”

Brann encourages beef producers looking for a way to renovate their land to incorporate another species of livestock into their system.

Some beef producers will occasionally partner with someone who owns sheep or goats to incorporate some of these benefits into their operation. Others will go and purchase an additional species of livestock to add another source of revenue and diversify the operation, he says.

“Both ways can be very beneficial and sustainable unless you overgraze,” Brann says. “For those looking to leave their land better than they found it, multi-species grazing is a great way to reach that goal.”  end mark

This article originally appeared in print with "Does multi-species grazing fit your operations?"

PHOTO 1: Grazing cattle and sheep together is a great way to renovate the land and become more sustainable.

PHOTO 2: Grazing preferences of livestock have a strong influence on which species of plants dominate the landscape. Incorporating multiple species into a grazing system can increase plant diversity. Photos courtesy of Greg Brann.