When more than one kind of livestock grazes a pasture, there can be several advantages gained. 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.

The key to any good grazing operation is to have a good mix of vegetation to help keep the plant community healthy and stable.  Since we can’t always get out to plant the very best vegetation, we may have to use what is available on the pastures that we use and one way to enhance the productivity of our pastures is to practice complimentary grazing —since certain animals eat plants that others won't. There are many good examples for this, such as cattle and deer. You can't maintain a good deer habitat with just deer because the grass will take over. If you add cattle, they will eat the grass, and then the forbs and brush (the main content of a deer’s 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.

Producers make decisions about what they think is the appropriate mix that should be in their pasture, and this is known as land management. Multi-species grazing is just another tool that can be used to accomplish their goals, and one of the few sustainable ways available for doing this. If producers don't use different species of animals, they may be inclined to use herbicides, mowing and other tactics to eradicate unwanted forages.

One advantage to bringing sheep or goats into a cattle operation, apart from and beyond additional income they might provide, is that the producer is adding a sustainable vegetation management tool. Vegetation management always costs some money and effort, but this way it gives something back (in the form of additional income) to the producer every year and is therefore sustainable. These sheep or goats can and will eat weeds or other forbs that cattle won't eat which in turn can help keep the plant community in balance.

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.  The producer is asking the animal to do something for them besides just producing meat and hide, they are wanting the vegetation management.  By using animals to accomplish vegetation management, it is costing the producer something (in fencing, increased management, etc.), but it is more sustainable as it is a way to get some money back for doing this type of management.

While multi-species grazing is a very old idea, it is a method that is becoming recognized again. In this form of 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 being used today, 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; meaning cattle parasites don't generally mature in sheep and vice versa.

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

Remember, multispecies grazing requires more thought and management, and more investment in facilities, but it can have big payoffs for your pasture and your wallet. If you do decide to add one or more species to your operation, be sure to investigate your market and fencing options, and then start slowly. Select healthy stock, and be observant.  The best producers follow the three M’s: measure, monitor, and manage.

Source: Nathanial Cahill, MU Extension Ag Business Specialist