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Adding Profit the Easy Way: Grazing Sheep with Cattle
This article was first printed in the July - August 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Would you like to add more profit to your grazing system? Maintain better control of your forage? Have more pasture diversification? These are pretty no-brainer questions; of course any good farm manager will answer yes to all of these.
This spring at the Wisconsin Grazing Conference put on by Grassworks, Inc., Dr. Bob Nusbaum (UW Platteville Animal Scientist) and Bruce and Lisa Rickard (farmers from Fredrickstown, Ohio) stated that you can accomplish all of these things by adding sheep to your cattle grazing system, or cattle to your sheep grazing system. They went into detail explaining how and why multi-species grazing improves productivity of BOTH species. In fact, research has shown that adding one ewe per cow in a grazing system led to an overall net profit of 29% above that of cattle grazing alone.
Similarities, Differences Complement Each Other
Because of these grazing preferences, if you run sheep and beef in the same pastures you will see more even and more efficient utilization of the plants. You will also see more uniform manure spread, especially in varied terrain, as sheep tend to prefer hills while you’ll find your cows in the low ground. The species do not share parasites, and so parasite load per animal will not increase with the increased number of animals.
Sheep are more selective grazers than cattle, and will eat weed species, even things like burdock and thistle if less than 4” tall. In the Western states sheep have been very effective in re-opening pasturelands to cattle by eating out leafy spurge, which is toxic to cattle. Reducing these broad leaf plants will allow more sunlight for grasses, encouraging grass growth. Pasture diversity will be maintained by the two species, as each will forage for different things. One researcher found that cattle and sheep diets only overlap 35%. Grazing overall will be more even with multiple species. Sheep will eat close to cow manure patties, which cattle will avoid. Cows will clean up mature grasses that sheep will ignore. Sheep can go into a pasture that the cows will be tired of and still find plenty to eat. The Rickards have found that they can successfully graze sheep on pastures long after cows into the fall.
Management Recommendations, Challenges
Fencing- Although 4-5 strands of barbed wire perimeter fence will easily hold in a cow, it will be inadequate for sheep. Adding two strands of hot wire to the fence should keep sheep where you put them. Six strands of barbwire can work too, depending on what is on the other side of the fence. Two strands of electric wire is sufficient for interior paddocks.
Water- Cattle and sheep can share a watering system, although if adding cows to sheep capacity will need to be expanded. Flow rate and tank size will both need to be increased to handle cattle needs. Sheep will eat snow in the winter, cattle won’t. Sheep will need a lot less water overall. If using natural water sources it is important to note that sheep will generally not cross a flowing stream. If trying to protect a water source from the animals, more fencing will be needed to keep sheep out.
Working facilities- Both species can be trained to use the same handling areas. Moveable panels help for any adaptations that must be made to accommodate size differences.
Minerals and grain- Sheep can’t have access to cattle mineral due to a toxicity with copper. Red urine in sheep is an indicator of high copper levels. Mineral access can be managed by feeder height to keep the sheep out. Sheep will try to get into anywhere you are feeding grain, so be prepared.
Predators- Cattle will help protect sheep from predators. Older ewes will actually form bonds with the cows, helping with predator control. If stockers are brought in, the dynamic between species will not develop as tightly and you will see less protective effect.
Herd dynamics- Some farmers have found that rams will “bully” cows and be protective of water sources or other gathering areas. At lambing, some cattle may create problems for the young lambs. You may want to separate animals at certain times of the year to avoid these challenges.
The report summarizes results: “ Preliminary results indicate that grazing cattle and sheep simultaneously increased animal gain per acre by 40 lbs. when compared to cattle only, and by 88 lbs. when compared to sheep grazed alone.” The researchers noted that “based on these preliminary data it appears that total weight weaned, total weight gained and gain per acre can be increased by co-grazing sheep and cattle relative to either species grazed alone. Increasing the stocking rate by adding another species of livestock does not appear to lower the gains and performance of either species when compared to single species grazing.” In the first year no measurable effect was observed on pasture composition. The researchers overall observed no detrimental effects of multi-species grazing, and noted that only minor additional inputs were needed (most notably the addition of two electric wires to the cattle fencing to keep the sheep in.) (Note: attempts to find a final report for this project were not successful, but these first year results have been substantiated by numerous other studies done around the world. Various studies show cattle gains when grazed with sheep ranging from 12 to 126%, while sheep gains when grazed with cattle show gains of up to 21% over either animal being grazed alone.)
Primarily sheep producers, the Rickards decided a few years ago to try bringing in cattle to help interrupt parasite cycles in the sheep flock and so they could offer grass-fed beef to their lamb customers. Bruce says that they are “reluctant” cattle people. Over the years they have tried different management systems for multi-species grazing, and find their system is still evolving. Bruce identifies four types of multi species systems:
Because of the primary concern of parasite control, the Rickards have found that grazing sheep and cattle together is the least ideal of the four models for them. They say the most ideal for managing parasites would be either plan 3 or 4, when you are taking one species off a section of pasture for a long period to break the parasite cycle, but that these systems will not work for everyone as they require more pasture acreage than the first two systems. Bruce notes that a Scottish grazing system they really like uses the fourth model above, but splits the farm into three pieces, one cattle, one sheep and the third for only cutting hay and running weaned lambs each year, rotating each section each year, increasing advantages for parasite control and pasture renewal.
The Rickards currently put their 800 ewes out into grazing paddocks early in the spring. They buy 60 head Holstein stocker cattle in April, and put them before the sheep in paddocks to help with the spring flush of grass. They run the cattle in front of the sheep through July, when the grass slows down. They will then take the beef feeders to market, and will use the profit they make to buy hay for their winter sheep needs. They are moving into a system where they will split their farm into halves, one half for ewes and nursing lambs, the other for beef stockers and then weaned lambs. The following year they will switch halves, moving ewes into the former stocker paddocks and vice-versa. They will go into areas to cut hay as needed. Bruce and Lisa feel that this system will ultimately give them the best parasite control, be smoothest for management and support good market diversity. They also have brought chickens out into their pastures, where they see help with fly control. They generally run 120 layers for every 12 cows, but remind us that managing egg-layers is a whole new layer of work, management and marketing that needs to be managed.
The Rickards see the benefits of multi-species grazing in their system through a reduction of the need for clipping pastures, the maintenance of pasture diversity, lower parasite loads in the sheep and better utilization of the grass. They also appreciate the marketing diversity, at both the commodity sales barn and in their direct meat markets. Bruce says that ultimately, the effect of multi-species grazing is that they “sell more products from the same grass.” Bruce cautions, however, that managing multiple species can get complex, and take more planning than running only one species on pastures. He suggests when bringing in new species that you try a few new animals at a time and to be prepared for a lot of trial and error to find a system that fits your farm. “Keep the big picture in mind” he recommends.
Adding Sheep to Dairy
To succeed at multi-species grazing Dr. Nusbaum recommends you choose your animals carefully. You will want low maintenance breeds, animals that are tough, can lamb or calve on pasture, will perform well on grass and succeed with little management. He recommends that you “buy breeding stock from an environment that is equal to or less in quality than yours,” so that the animals will continue to improve in your situation and under your management.
If you feel like you have your grazing system more or less under control, next year might be the year to consider shaking things up by adding a new species, for benefit to both your pastures and your pocketbook as your pasture carrying capacity goes up. For more information, see the sidebar with recommended resources.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP