Redefining Livestock Management: Multispecies Grazing Offers a Sustainable Solution

Redefining Livestock Management: Multispecies Grazing Offers a Sustainable Solution

Medically Reviewed By: Hannah Varnell, D.V.M.

Limited land, the need for sustainable practices, and ensuring the well-being of animals are constant concerns for farmers. Multispecies grazing offers a practical and sustainable solution for many modern farming operations. Research suggests that multispecies livestock farming has the potential to enhance economic viability, environmental sustainability, and social acceptability through enhanced animal and ecological stewardship.

To maintain productivity, farmers must efficiently utilize their land and resources, maintain soil health, manage pests, and provide balanced nutrition to different species. Multispecies grazing addresses these challenges by allowing various animals to graze together, creating a balanced farm ecosystem.

This popular farm management method maximizes land use and promotes soil fertility, controls pests naturally, ensures varied nutrition, and may even offer new revenue streams. However, if not well-managed, there is potential for cross-species disease transmission, parasitism, and nutrient deficiencies. Consult your veterinarian for a protocol for your farm acreage, species, and production goals.

Benefits of Multispecies Grazing

Increased Production: Combining livestock species can boost production due to enhanced land-carrying capacity and improved individual animal performance, allowing you to produce more meat per acre. For example, research has shown that introducing sheep to cattle grazing can elevate animal production by as much as 24%, while incorporating cattle into sheep grazing can increase production by up to 9%.

Botanical Biodiversity: Utilizing a variety of livestock species, each with distinct dietary preferences, ensures a balanced distribution of grazing impact across the plant community. This approach minimizes the strain on any single forage plant preferred by a particular species. Plant diversity also enhances soil health, prevents soil erosion, and maintains the overall fertility of the land naturally. Healthier soil means better crop yields and sustainable farming practices.

Natural Pest Control: Certain animal species, such as chickens and guinea fowl, are natural predators of insects. Allowing them to graze alongside larger livestock helps in controlling pest populations naturally. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides, promoting a healthier ecosystem and preventing environmental pollution.

Efficient Resource Utilization: Multispecies grazing optimizes land use by allowing animals with varied dietary preferences to share the same pasture. This efficient land utilization maximizes the productivity of the farm, ensuring that every inch of land is put to good use. It also reduces the need for separate grazing areas for different animal species, saving space and resources.

Soil Nutrient Cycling: Different animal species have different digestive systems and feeding behaviors, leading to varied types of manure. When these animals graze together, their manure enriches the soil with diverse nutrients. This natural fertilization improves soil quality and reduces the need for expensive artificial fertilizers.

Improved Animal Health and Welfare: Multispecies grazing allows animals to exhibit natural behaviors and social interactions, reducing stress and promoting overall well-being. Healthy, stress-free animals are more resistant to diseases and require fewer antibiotics or medical interventions, contributing to sustainable farming practices and reducing the use of pharmaceuticals in agriculture.

Conservation of Resources: By reducing the need for chemical inputs, promoting natural pest control, and optimizing resource utilization, multispecies grazing conserves essential resources such as water, energy, and feed. Conservation of these resources is vital for the long-term sustainability of any farm operation.

Climate Resilience: Diverse, well-managed pastures sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, aiding in mitigating climate change. Additionally, healthy soils resulting from multispecies grazing practices are more resilient to extreme weather conditions, such as droughts and heavy rains, making the farm operation more adaptable to changing climate patterns.

Multispecies Grazing: Identifying Species Characteristics

Based on their morphophysiological characteristics, herbivores can be categorized into three groups – concentrate selectors, intermediate feeders, and grazers.

Concentrate Selectors

Concentrate selectors seek specific plants or plant parts that are easily digestible and rich in cellular nutrients, such as starch, protein, and fat. They preferentially consume smaller but more frequent meals containing high-energy, nutrient-dense feeds like grains, seeds, and legumes. Anatomically, these animals usually have narrower mouths, larger salivary glands, smaller digestive tracts, and larger livers. Concentrate selectors generally don’t consume large amounts of fiber and prefer plants with high cellular soluble and lower cell wall contents. Concentrate selector species include rabbits, roe deer, squirrels, and poultry.

Intermediate Feeders

Intermediate feeders have a more versatile diet, consuming a mix of grasses, forbs, shrubs, and grains. They opportunistically shift their feeding behavior based on environmental plant availability. Intermediate feeder species include sheep, goats, deer, alpacas, llamas, and pigs.

Roughage Feeders/Grazers

Roughage feeders eat mostly grass and have large rumens or specialized gastrointestinal tracts that allow them to process greater quantities of high-fiber forage. Grazers require more time to digest and pass cell wall contents than concentrate selectors. Roughage feeder species include cattle and buffalo. Horses, without rumens, are grazers.

Accommodating Dietary Overlap in Your Mixed Herd

Livestock species select forages based on grazing habits and physical traits. For this reason, producers often successfully combine cattle, sheep, and goats. This pairing works well when the ecosystem supports varied amounts of grass, forb, and browse. Forbs are flowering herbaceous plants with broad leaves, which include clovers, sunflowers, daylilies, chicory, kale, and turnips. Browse refers to shrubs and woody plants that offer nutritious twigs, shoots, fruits, leaves, and buds. Grasses are typically herbaceous plants with long, narrow leaves that grow from the base of the plant and branching root systems.

Dietary overlap is a key distinction between single-species and multispecies stocking methods. While cattle, sheep, and goats have specific preferences, there is some overlap; for example, goats often consume around 30% grass, a resource also favored by cattle. Cattle, sheep, and goats can graze harmoniously even though their plant preferences overlap when a mixed pasture containing forbs, browse, and grasses is available.

Here is a data-based approximation of their preferential feeding habits:

Mixed pasture requirements for cattle, sheep, and goat multispecies grazing farms

Mineral Supplementation

Combining different species presents logistical challenges beyond fencing and facilities, necessitating innovative solutions to meet diverse animal needs. Proper mineral supplementation is a common concern, particularly copper intake.

  • Sheep and Cattle: For example, sheep require less copper than goats and cattle, but they still need it in their diet. Producers can manage this by feeding sheep minerals to all species, with potential additional copper supplementation for cattle during their third trimester. For continuous multispecies pasturing, try using a feeder at least 30 inches high for cattle minerals. Provide a separate, suitable mineral source for your sheep through a designated creep feeder to ensure adequate nutrition without the risk of copper overdose. Some farmers also incorporate a leader-follower approach, with separate pastures for cattle and sheep, allowing for tailored mineral supplementation using portable feeders.
  • Cattle and Goats, No Sheep: Providing appropriate cattle mineral suffices for both species for operations with cattle and goats but no sheep.
  • Sheep and Poultry/Swine: Poultry litter and swine manure have high levels of copper, so use caution when using these waste products for pasture fertility if you have sheep. We recommend conducting soil and forage tests to assess your pastures’ mineral status.

Popular Multispecies Grazing Setups

Multispecies grazing involves combining different types of animals in the same pasture, taking advantage of complementary feeding behaviors and nutritional needs. This practice maximizes land use and benefits the animals and the farm ecosystem.

Common multispecies grazing operations pair grazers with concentrate selector species and/or intermediate feeders.

  • Cattle, Sheep, and Goats: This combination is popular because cattle and sheep graze on grass, while goats prefer to browse on shrubs and bushes. Together, they utilize different plant types effectively, promoting diverse pasture growth.
  • Cattle, Sheep, Goats, and Poultry/Waterfowl (Mixed Herd): Each species contributes differently to the ecosystem, ensuring efficient land use, natural pest control, and diverse forage consumption. Chickens and ducks are natural foragers and insect hunters. They peck around cow manure, consuming weeds, insects, and larvae, which helps in pest control and enhances nutrient cycling. Some producers report success from introducing poultry around three days after cattle and sheep have left the paddock. At this point, fly larvae have begun to emerge from the manure, making a nice meal for your poultry.
  • Cattle and Pigs: Cattle primarily graze on grass, while pigs are omnivores and root for food. When appropriately rotated, these two species can work together to clear and prepare land for cultivation. Pigs root weeds and break compacted soil, creating a healthier environment for future crops.
  • Sheep, Alpacas, and Llamas: Sheep graze on grass, while alpacas and llamas are gentle on pastures and prefer browsing on shrubs. Alpacas and llamas also serve as excellent companion animals and guardians, protecting sheep from predators like coyotes and dogs.
  • Ducks and Fish: In integrated aquaculture systems, ducks can forage in rice paddies or fish ponds. They eat insects, weeds, and leftover fish food, promoting a balanced ecosystem. The ducks’ waste provides natural fertilizer for plants and fish.
  • Bees and Livestock: While not traditional grazers, bees play a crucial role in pollination. Integrating beehives into pastures benefits the farm and the surrounding ecosystem by enhancing crop yields and supporting biodiversity.
  • Donkeys and Livestock: Donkeys serve as around-the-clock guardians for cattle and other livestock. They have good eyesight, even at night, and will fearlessly confront predators to protect their herd.

Each multispecies combination offers unique advantages, depending on your farm’s unique goals, resource availability, and environmental conditions. Proper management, rotational grazing, and understanding the animals’ natural behaviors are key to successful multispecies grazing systems.

Note that some species share common diseases and parasites, so ensuring a healthy vaccination protocol plus parasite management protocol is essential for preventing disease in a multi-species herd. For example, sheep and goats share the same intestinal parasites and can propagate strongyloid burdens in the herd, leading to more frequent and recurring infections. Proper stocking density, good genetics, and monitoring Famacha scores with fecal egg counts are necessary if these species are to be successfully grazed together.

The optimal stocking rate for your livestock is subject to seasonal fluctuations, influenced by farm acreage, temperature, rainfall, pasture composition, fecundity and gestation rates, and animal growth rates. Many graziers agree that a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of sheep to cattle works well for their farm. But remember that sheep and goat herds grow faster than cattle herds – within a few months, your growing flock could add pressure to your pastures.

The Importance of Biosecurity in Multispecies Farming

Preventing the introduction and spread of diseases among different animal species is crucial for your mixed herd’s overall health and productivity. Farmers can take several biosecurity measures to prevent illness, safeguard their livestock, and ensure food safety:

Facility and Resource Management

  1. Sanitization Protocols: Implement strict cleaning and disinfection routines for equipment, tools, and animal housing areas. Use appropriate disinfectants effective against common pathogens.
  2. Manure Management: Properly handle and dispose of manure to prevent contamination of grazing areas and water sources.
  3. Feed Safety: Ensure the safety and quality of animal feed. Store feed in secure, clean, and dry areas. Dispose of expired or contaminated food.
  4. Water Source Protection: Protect water sources, such as ponds or wells, from contamination. Fencing off these areas and implementing runoff control measures can prevent pollutants from entering the water, ensuring a safe animal drinking supply.
  5. Wildlife Control: Minimize contact between farm animals and wildlife, which can carry diseases. Implement measures such as fencing and deterrents.
  6. Rodent and Pest Control: Implement strategies to control rodents and pests on the farm. These animals can carry diseases and contaminate animal feed and water sources.
  7. Isolation Facilities: Have designated isolation facilities on the farm to separate sick animals from healthy ones. Equip facilities with proper ventilation and sanitation measures.
  8. Proper Disposal: Ensure adequate disposal of dead animals, placental materials, and other biological waste. Prompt removal and safe disposal prevent the spread of diseases within the farm.

Farm Policies and Procedures

  1. Biosecurity Training: Educate farm workers about biosecurity measures, including proper hygiene practices and disease recognition. Conduct regular training sessions for farm workers to raise awareness about biosecurity protocols and their importance.
  2. Quarantine Procedures: Isolate new animals for a specific period, usually 30 days, before introducing them to the existing herd or flock. Monitor them for signs of illness.
  3. Restricted Access: Limit access to your farm to essential personnel only. Sanitize visitors, vehicles, and equipment before they enter.
  4. Visitor Logs: Maintain a log of all farm visitors, including the date and purpose of their visit. This record can be invaluable for tracing the source of diseases in an outbreak.
  5. Footwear and Clothing Protocols: Provide designated footwear and clothing for farm workers and visitors to wear while on the farm. Clean boots and coveralls regularly.
  6. Emergency Response Planning: Develop a disease outbreak action plan, including quarantine procedures, communication protocols, and coordination with your farm vet.
  7. Collaboration and Reporting: Foster collaboration with neighboring farms and report any unusual animal health symptoms promptly. Early detection and shared information can prevent the rapid spread of diseases in the farming community.

Medical Care

  1. Animal Health Monitoring: Regularly monitor your herd for signs of illness. Isolate and seek veterinary care for sick or injured animals promptly. Gaining familiarity with your animals can help you identify unusual behaviors.
  2. Vaccination Programs: Work with a veterinarian to establish a vaccination schedule tailored to your specific farm and region to prevent common diseases.
  3. Record-Keeping: Maintain detailed records of animal health, vaccinations, treatments, and any unusual occurrences. Accurate and organized records aid in tracking the health status of the animals and can be invaluable during disease investigations.

Medical Reviewer Profile: Dr. Hannah Varnell is the founder and CEO of Wellfarm Veterinary Consultants, a large animal veterinary practice serving livestock production farms across Virginia. A former global health and agricultural development researcher, Dr. Varnell is a pioneer in practical approaches to herd health. She completed her veterinary degree at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and her residency in Production Management Medicine at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.