Co-Species Grazing – A Forgotten Pasture Management Tool

Published on Thu, 05/20/2021 - 8:56am

Co-Species Grazing – A Forgotten Pasture Management Tool.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski.

 Co-species grazing (or co-grazing) different livestock in the same pasture, or rotating them through different paddocks, is nothing new at all. Arguably, we’ve been doing it nearly as long as we’ve tended livestock. But as the animal production systems have changed over the last hundred or so years, the more producers have specialized their operations, leading to more or less losing some of this art and the accompanying benefits.

Why still consider this option as a beef producer? Well for one, it’s extremely practical for anyone – especially those with communal pastures and neighbors – who has horses, sheep or goats to simply allow pasture sharing to eliminate the hassle of complicated animal movements or additional paddocks. This can also mean fewer water and feeding systems to maintain.

Perhaps even more appealing than this are the host of benefits for your pasture’s and animals’ health that occur when species share the same grazing space under proper management.

For pasture health
Healthy pastures don’t just happen. They need to be maintained and managed, much like any other crop. Keeping undesirable or even invasive weeds at bay to prevent them from overtaking the more nutritious and palatable plants is an important means of nutritious grazing.

Different species have different grazing behaviors, and when put together in a managed system, they can compliment one another. Sheep and goats in particular are excellent at eating more of the coarse, shrubby and dense types of plants such as sericea lespedeza and thistle.

This may be especially helpful to reclaim or restore pastures that are overgrown after cattle have taken off most of the younger more tender forages. Without heavy machinery or chemicals, this is economical and even profitable when used to put weight on sheep and goats for market.

Horses are able to eat grass close to the ground, utilizing what’s inaccessible to cattle or small ruminants. In this sense, co-grazing ensures that pastures are utilized to the fullest possible efficiency with more uniformity throughout the season.

With different animals eating different types of plants that would be untouched in a cattle-only pasture, cross-species grazing can also promote biodiversity among forages.  

For animal health
A strength of co-grazing often discussed is the overall decrease in parasite burden. Because certain internal parasites are species-specific, co-grazing means that some larvae and eggs will be eaten by animals that aren’t affected by them or affected to a lesser extent.

For example, sheep and goats are extremely vulnerable to internal parasites compared to cattle. When grazed together, the cattle tend to take up most of the load with minimal to no impact. This leaves less for the small ruminants to consume and suffer from.

The same can be said for cattle and horses with strongyles, according to 2019 research from Cambridge University. The study found that when young horses were grazed with cattle, their strongyle fecal egg count was 50% less than that of their counterparts who were grazed in equine-only pasture. While more research is needed to pinpoint some of the specifics when it comes to grazing horses and cattle, these results are promising.

With parasite resistance to different deworming treatments becoming of greater concern across all livestock and equine sectors, this strategy holds a lot of potential. This aspect alone may make it worth the while to attempt co-grazing for a season or two, testing fecal egg counts before and after, to see if there is benefit in a particular pasture.

Don’t forget
There are several points to be considered when it comes to the management and environment of a shared pasture. One of the most important are accounting for the nutritional and supplemental differences in different species.

In any pasture, toxic forages need to be evaluated and removed with consideration to what you’re grazing. In the case of broodmares, for example, you don’t want them sharing a fescue grass pasture that would be otherwise fine for cattle.

If you are supplementing your pasture with minerals or other feedstuffs, you also need to remember the toxicity of different species. Sheep, for example, are extremely sensitive to copper and many additives in cattle minerals are toxic to horses. While this is certainly manageable, it takes a conscious effort to ensure everything you provide is either safe for all species or offered in separate groups.

Stocking density is another measure that can be easily overlooked in shared pastures. Most people know how many horses or cows their land can sustain, but might not think about the additional burden of sheep or goats. Several calculators and other resources are available to help you stay on top of what your pasture can and cannot support, but you will also need to monitor progress throughout the year.

Note that while different species may not necessarily “compete” with one another due to grazing preference, crowding and hoof traffic do add up.

Fencing can be an issue when new species are introduced to a pasture. While cattle can certainly be rough on fences, they can be contained with a relatively simple set up.

Small ruminants, alternatively, are notorious escape artists. Cattle producers wanting to add in sheep or goats usually find it necessary to add a hot wire or two to keep animals from going through or under the fence.  

While not as likely to escape as sheep or goats, horses can be very prone to entanglements in loose barbed or straight wire.

Before adding any new species to your pasture, be sure to do a good perimeter check and make whatever necessary adjustments. Other practicalities to think about in advance include things like an accessible water source for all animals and the winter feeding plan.

Overall, co-grazing is a method that has lots of benefits for the land, the animal and producers as well. If it can fit into your situation, this tool is certainly one worth investigating. Cattle producers should however remain mindful it will take some patience and time to ease into a new managerial system. It’s helpful to investigate other producers who are co-grazing in your region or with a similar setup to get an idea of what will work best for you.