Organizing a multi-species farm can be challenging. Each species has its own special dietary and housing needs, but once you understand how to utilize the species of choice to their maximum potential it is worth the effort. We chose to run goats, sheep and cattle on our farm and are planning to add chickens and pigs to our land-improvement arsenal. For now, though, we will concentrate on what we have.
Goats like to browse. They prefer bush, trees and weeds. They will eat grass if that is all that is there. If our purpose is summer grazing and not clearing up a brush or weed problem we have found it best to have the goats the first ones to eat on a pasture because they prefer to take the tips off the plants on their first pass. This leaves lots of plant height for the cows. Since five goats are considered to eat the same as a cow we use that as a stocking rate guideline.
Cows like to wrap their tongues around the grass to graze. They do not like to eat encroaching bushes or the red bartsia we have a problem with. They also will keep a buffer zone between themselves and unpalatable species like red bartsia or leafy spurge, enabling these weeds to spread. We find it best to graze cows second to let them take care of a lot of the grass, then we let in the sheep.
On a cattle operation, sheep and goats can be used to graze plants that the cattle refuse or are unable to eat. Cattle have the advantage of being large and heavy. Once the goats/sheep have cleared an offensive weed such as leafy spurge out of a pasture the cattle could then be mob grazed (intensive numbers) for a short period of time after a rain and their hooves would be able to chop the remainder of the offensive plants into the ground in an aeration/cultivation manner.
Sheep like grass and weeds. They aren’t as prone to eat trees but will eat woody vegetation if need be. They don’t have to wrap their tongues around the grass to eat it. Therefore we graze them last to clean up the weeds that the goats have left behind.
Although we have done some weed eradication with our goats our purpose for them is for future brush clearing. Our plan is to use a method we have learned of from a neighbour that observed a farmer in our area many years ago clear his land with sheep. His method was to fence bush land that he wanted to clear in 10-acre parcels. Before he let any sheep into the area, the large trees would be cut down. Then the sheep were released to graze in early May. The snow must be gone and the trees budding, but the grass not totally established. This would encourage the sheep to eat the brush and still have grass to eat. This is why we believe the goats would be better for this job. They love to eat trees.
It is important not to overstock but have enough sheep to keep the pressure on the brush. If you overstock them you will have to supplemental feed hay or risk the health of the sheep. The next season the sheep returned to this paddock and grazed off the regrowth of the trees. The farmer harvested the larger trees for firewood and in the fall proceeded to work the land and moved the sheep to fresh land. In our experience this kind of project works better with a combination of goats and sheep.
We have cleared the brush off of an acre of bush pasture in one season with 17 does with kids but had to supplemental feed them hay all summer. What would have worked better would have been to leave them in the brush for about a month then move them out and leave about six ewes on the acre. That would have given the goats enough time to ring the bark on the trees and eat all the new growth on the brush and leave the grass for the ewes because the goats didn’t want to eat it.
What we have learned since then is that because there was still, in their perception, trees available to eat they would leave the grass behind and try and survive on the bark because all the green parts were gone. Had we moved the sheep onto the pasture at that time they would have willingly taken over grazing the weeds and grass the goats were leaving in favour of hay and we could have moved the goats onto a pasture better suited to their needs.
When deciding to use a multi-species grazing approach it is important to keep a few points in mind.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Grazing a brush area or problem weed such as leafy spurge will eventually weaken the plant. Eventually the weakened plant will succumb to pressure put on it by more favourable growth, or, if using a herbicide, the weakened state may increase herbicide efficacy and may reduce the number of years herbicide has to be sprayed.
Some long-residual herbicides cannot be used near bodies of water. Sheep or goats can easily be pastured in these areas.
Sheep or goats can be used in areas where terrain is rough and spraying equipment could be damaged.
Sheep and goats may further increase your pasture carrying capacity by browsing undesirable shrubs while leaving favourable cattle feeding plants. As the problem plants/brush is lessened the sheep could put pressure on cattle feed. This must be monitored and the sheep moved to a new problem spot to leave feed for cattle.
Predation is an issue. Fences must be secure, and we use night pens along with guardian dogs on our farm. Increased pasture is hard to balance against loss of income from dead stock.
If sheep and cattle or goats are on the pasture at the same time copper cannot be used in the mineral mix fed to the animals. Copper is toxic to sheep, therefore co-habitation can only be for short periods of time or there is a risk to the cattle and goats of becoming deficient.
Producers also have to understand that if they choose to use grazing to eradicate a bush or weed encroachment it isn’t the same as using a chemical.
What we have found is that each species of grazers has their own favourite foods and like to eat in different ways. By understanding this, farmers can more efficiently use pasture.