by: Heather Smith Thomas

When more than one kind of livestock graze a pasture, there can be several advantages gained, since cattle, sheep and goats have different dietary preferences and grazing behaviors. Grazing more than one species on a unit of land can more fully utilize the plants available and produce more meat (and profit) from that unit. This type of complementary grazing behavior is also healthier for the land and forage, keeping the various types of plants in better ecological balance.

Karen Launchbaugh, Professor of Rangeland Ecology, University of Idaho, says multi-species grazing allows you to match the grazing animals to the forage available. “The key is to have a mix of species that match the vegetation, helping keep the plant community healthy and stable—since certain animals eat plants the others won't. There are many good examples for this, such as cattle and deer. You can't maintain good deer habitat with just deer because the grass will take over,” she explains. If you add cattle, they will eat the grass, and then the forbs and brush (the main content of deer diet) won't be crowded out. And conversely, if there are no deer or other types of browsers (sheep, goats), to keep the brush and forbs in check, those plants take over and there is less grass for the cattle.

Over time you may see huge swings, back and forth, between brush and grass, unless you use some kind of complementary grazing strategy to utilize ALL the plants. “This includes the wildlife use,” she says. “It pays to keep them in mind as well.”

The health of the wildlife and land resource depends on how we try to utilize the vegetation. “We make decisions about what we think the appropriate mix should be, and this is land management. Multi-species grazing is just one way we can accomplish our goals, and one of the few sustainable ways available for doing this. If we don't use different species of animals, we must use herbicides, mowing and other tactics,” says Launchbaugh.

“One advantage to bringing sheep into a cattle operation, apart from and beyond additional income they might provide, is that you are adding a sustainable vegetation management tool. This gives something back to you. Vegetation management always costs some money and effort, but this way it gives something back to you every year and is therefore sustainable,” she explains. The sheep can eat weeds and other forbs that cattle won't eat, and can help control them and keep the plant community in balance.

In some areas ranchers and land managers are hiring people with sheep or goats to target graze in places where invasive weeds have taken over. We are now able to control species like leafy spurge with intensive sheep grazing, for instance. “The goal is to accomplish landscape modification, and some people make their whole living managing vegetation—by herding sheep or goats in certain target areas,” she says.

In western rangelands with large patches of tall larkspur, sheep can be used to advantage to prevent cattle losses, since this plant is not as poisonous to sheep. Sheep are sometimes herded through these areas ahead of the cattle, eating and trampling the larkspur, and then there is not enough left to endanger the cattle. “The sheep like it and it's not toxic to them,” says Launchbaugh. Since some plants are toxic to one species and not another, you can strategically utilize different grazing animals to safely graze certain pastures.

You can also reclaim brushy pastures with sheep or goats. Goats, especially, can utilize brush as the main part of their diet, reaching higher on the plant (even standing on their hind legs to browse higher branches) and stripping back the invasive brushy plants.

Targeted grazing utilizes animals to control a specific type of vegetation, whereas multi-species grazing is typically a sustainable grazing practice with a mix of animal species to match the available plant species. “You are asking the animal to do something for you besides just produce meat and hide. By using animals to accomplish vegetation management, it is costing you something (in fencing, increased management, etc.) it's not free, but it is more sustainable because it's a way to get some money back for doing this type of vegetation management. In the long run you are more able to keep it going,” she says.

Multi-species grazing is a very old idea that is becoming recognized again. “When I was growing up, many farmers had both cows and sheep—especially grazing sheep in yards and barnyards to get rid of all the weeds that grow up between the parked equipment. Some people also had goats for this purpose,” says Launchbaugh. Then people went away from this idea and tried to maximize production in a single area.

“Now this old idea has come again, but for a new reason. Multi-species grazing is now used more for sustainability and ecological health, and becoming very popular,” she says. In arid regions with extensive fuel loads, goats can be a big advantage in fire control by reducing brush, and cattle are also very good at reducing total biomass.

“Ranchers are also able to use resources that can't be used with a single species. I have read about cattle cooperatives in Montana and North Dakota where the cattlemen pay the sheepherders to bring their flocks in to graze, to get rid of leafy spurge so they'll have more grass. They are paying to reclaim their pastures and get more grass, but doing it by paying the sheepherders to graze the spurge.”

With multi-species grazing, the animals don't have to be in the same pasture at the same time. They can follow one another in a strategic rotation system, utilizing the various plants at the best time. In intensively grazed areas, rotating different species can also reduce parasite load since internal parasites are host specific; the cattle parasites don't generally mature in sheep and vice versa. The parasite cycle can be broken by alternating species. The worm larva (from one species) which crawl onto forage plants to be eaten can't mature and reproduce if eaten by a different species of animal. And they will not be there on the grass anymore when their host animals come back to that pasture.

Launchbaugh says there may not be much reason to use all three species (cattle, sheep and goats) but what you choose may depend on your own situation—whether you want to reduce brush or just have a complementary grazing strategy.


“The original literature on multi-species grazing years ago focused on it as a way to increase stocking rate—by having a mix of animals that could utilize the whole resource,” says Launchbaugh. The old term for this was complementary grazing, since the various animals complement one another in their diet preferences. It was mainly a mix of cattle and sheep, with goats used in the steeper country. This enables the cattleman to have more useable forage for the cattle, while also producing additional products such as sheep/goat meat and/or wool/goat hair.

A variety of grazers is not only good for ecological sustainability, but also allows you to get more production from your land. “From an economic standpoint, it gives you more potential. It's similar to having ‘portfolio diversification', resulting in something more financially stable,” she says. You don't have all your eggs in one basket, as the saying goes.

“It's the same with having several species of livestock. Cattle markets have historically been up when sheep are down, and vice versa. It hasn't been the case as much in recent years, but historically you could make a little money on one species when the other was down,” she explains.

Regardless, you can always get more production per acre from properly managed multi-species grazing than with a single species, since they tend to eat different plants. And, in higher elevation pastures with steep slopes, the sheep or goats may utilize the rougher portions that cattle rarely graze, while cattle utilize the lower, flatter regions that are not as well liked by sheep or goats. Thus there is more uniform use of the vegetative resource, and more total animals can graze in the pasture.

In some regions sheep can be grazed in winter on certain ranges or pastures where there is not enough water for cattle, since sheep can utilize snow more effectively for their water needs. There are many winter pastures that cannot be used by cattle nearly as well as by sheep.


“There are some downsides to multi-species grazing in that different skills are required for managing the different animals. You will also need different equipment and fencing,” says Launchbaugh. These can be a problem for some people, who prefer to target their interest and expertise in just one direction.

The different fencing requirements can be somewhat alleviated by judicious use of electric fencing, training the sheep/goats to respect a hot wire. In other instances fencing is not much of an issue, if you can train sheep to stay with the cows. “If the sheep are used to being with the cows, they will stick with the cows, and then you only need to fence for cattle. In the first generation the sheep may not feel that way, but the ones that grow up with cattle feel at ease with them, and in the long run the individuals feel like they belong to this group.” she says. Sheep may come to feel safer with the cattle, since some predators (such as coyotes) don't target cattle like they do sheep.

“In New Mexico there's been some research work done by Dean Anderson, USDA, in imprinting sheep onto cattle. The sheep really think they are cattle. The mixed group is called a flerd (flock/herd). They have the advantage of reduced predation because the cattle are there, and reduced fencing requirements,” she explains.

If a person doesn't want to commit to raising sheep or goats, the benefits of multi-species grazing can still be had by letting a sheepman or goat owner bring animals to your place periodically to graze certain pastures—for effective weed or brush control. Some cattlemen may lease pasture to sheep owners who don't have enough grazing land, while in other instances a rancher might let sheep or goats graze in exchange for weed and brush control, or may even find it beneficial to pay the sheepherder for this service.


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