By now you're probably well versed in the benefits of rotational grazing practices to improve soil and pasture health, increase forage yields and improve animal health and growth rates. What isn't always discussed in these practices and you may not be aware of, are the benefits of multi-species grazing systems to the health of your pastures.
Not sure which grazing system is right for you? Learn more about different livestock grazing methods.
In this article we'll go over; what is multi-species grazing, what are the benefits of this type of grazing and what are some of the key considerations to think about for your farm.
What is Multi-Species Grazing?
Multi-species grazing is a grazing system that encourages and supports the grazing of multiple species of animals on the same paddock, as a single herd or utilizing the leader-follower method. Multi-species grazing is often cited as a practice that can help increase biodiversity in order to support and promote regenerative agriculture.
Multi-species grazing typically uses a method of rotational grazing to effectively manage animal movements through the pasture using small divided sections or paddocks. Animals are given a small section to graze for a short amount of time to ensure that forage materials are not depleted and that forage plants can regrow quickly.
Animals are rotated through the paddocks accordingly to a planned grazing sequence (rotation), typically every few days (depending on forage yields, animal health and weather). Once each paddock has been grazed, the sequence starts over again with the paddock that has rested the longest.
Key Benefits of Multi-Species Grazing?
Because each species has different nutritional needs and forage preferences, this method effectively utilizes all available nutrients in the paddock. This grazing system also provides more effective weed control because different species graze in different ways and prefer different plants.
Additionally, because different animals are susceptible to different parasites they typically do not share parasites. This means that a a pasture recently grazed by cattle is unlikely to pass parasites onto your sheep or chickens and even better, it means that species like chickens will probably appreciate the parasites and fly larvae left from cattle manure.
By using different species with different nutritional needs in a holistic and balanced way you can make your pastures cleaner, healthier and more productive.
Additional benefits include:
Raise more meat per acre
Improved weed control
Reduced pesticide and herbicide usage
Increased pasture and soil health
Reduction of parasite loads (when sheep or chickens follow cattle)
Improved forage yields
Additional soil carbon sequestration
Increased biodiversity of farm
More balanced pasture utilization
Diversified income sources (cattle, sheep, chickens, etc)
Different species can perform better in different pasture topographies
Less predator stress in some situations
Increased soil security
Potential Considerations for Multi-Species Grazing
While multi-species grazing provides for a diverse operation and well balanced use of pastures it also requires species specific equipment and facilities and can sometimes be quite labor intensive. This increased effort of labor is often offset by creating healthier, more productive soils and pastures, which results in healthier, more productive animals.
Some additional factors to consider when considering converting to a multi-species grazing system:
Additional cost and labor is likely required
Different types of fencing may be needed for different species
Additional management practices may be needed
Different species may require different shelter and facilities
Sheep and goats tend to require more care than cattle
Smaller animals, like chickens, may required additional protection from predators
Stocking rates and animals per acre can be more difficult to calculate
Mineral and supplement distribution may be more challenging to manage
Some animal species may not get along well, meaning that you may need to use a follow-the-leader approach vs inter-grazing
Best Animals for Multi-Species Grazing
There are lots of different livestock options that could be used in a multi-species grazing operation. Multi-species grazing works best when you are able to pair the appropriate animals to work together as one system and where the animals are best suited to the role you're hoping they will play in your operation.
Cattle, sheep, and goats are commonly used for multi-species grazing operations because the way that each of these animals graze differs and doesn't conflict.
Grazing cattle rely on forages that can be easily grabbed with their tongue and pulled into their mouth. Goats on the other hand, tend to graze at higher heights, even head height and above, by browsing. Meanwhile, sheep typically graze with their heads down and create a short crop of pasture and prefer more tender forage than cattle or goats.
It is also common to graze chickens or other poultry after the ruminates (either free range or using a chicken tractor). Chickens are an excellent clean up crew. They will come along after the cattle, sheep and goats and eat parasites and larvae left behind as well as help clear and spread manure. They also produce a nitrogen rich manure that can enrich pasture soils. It's a good idea to move chickens regularly by utilizing a chicken tractor to minimize the impact their scratching can have on a single area. Here is an article about building chicken tractors.
Pigs are also an excellent species to consider in a multi-species grazing operation. Pigs can help to revive a worn-out pasture by rooting and digging, acting as a biological tiller. As they are also omnivores, they will also dig for additional parasites that the chickens may have missed. While pigs can help to prepare a field for crop rotation, producers need to be careful to maintain a reasonable ground cover and rotate pigs regularly to prevent pigs from stripping your pasture bare. 15-20 growing pigs or 7-10 sows per acre can usually be managed effectively.
Multi-species grazing provides many benefits and is a practice being adopted by more and more farmers as part of biodiversity programs. When considering moving to a multi-species grazing system, it's best to evaluate the time and resources needed to manage the grazing plan effectively as well as understand the costs and benefits of managing each livestock type.
We hope this article has been informative. If you need help keeping track of your livestock, take a look at our software, Farmbrite. Farmbrite is a complete livestock management system that provides integrated multi-species breeding, livestock record keeping, grazing, management, tracking, sales and reporting software to run a thriving livestock business. We're designed to support bio-diverse, multi-species livestock operations. Learn more about how we can help with your farm.