Multi-Species Grazing: Sheep and Cattle

Reader Contribution by April Freeman
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With great interest, we read the articles and blog posts about multi-species grazing. Without a doubt, this is a much more sustainable way to farm. See, when you graze different species of animals together, you’re doing things the way that Nature intended it.

Nature abhors a monoculture. If you look at naturally occurring habitats, you will see myriad species in one area. Birds, mammals, insects and plants all live together in an intricate web of life. When one piece of the puzzle is missing, the other parts get out of whack.

That’s one big problem with large monoculture systems: you’re working against nature when you just grow one crop, or just raise one type of animal on a piece of property. In keeping with these ideas, we began to adapt our farm to one that hosts several animals. We’ve had chickens, cattle, and horses for awhile. But we wanted to add sheep to the mix.

Sheep can help maximize the profitability of the small farm. Some reports say that you can add up to eight sheep to a paddock for every cow without overgrazing the land. Sheep eat different plants than cows do, so you can utilize woody, brushy, and poorer pastures to turn a cash crop.

That’s the ideal world. In the real world it’s a little more complex.

For the small farmer, adding additional animals means adding extra work. It also means that you need to learn about a whole new animal. Sheep are not cattle and you can’t treat them the same. We’ve enjoyed our sheep, but the learning curve has been quite steep. Most of our fall/winter lambs didn’t make it.

Here is a list of the challenges for the cattle farmer hoping to add sheep to the mix.

1. Fencing. The fencing needs of sheep are drastically different from those of cattle. You don’t just have to keep the sheep in; you also have to keep predators like coyotes and dogs out. We have a combination of woven wire and barbed wire with a hot electric fence wire. Before we added the electric, we had some predator issues.

2. Minerals. Sheep and cows use different minerals. The cattle need copper in their mineral, but copper is toxic to sheep. This has been the biggest hurdle for us to manage. We’ve ended up keeping the sheep separate from the cattle because we’ve not been able to figure out a good way of meeting the mineral needs of each type of animal when they are in the same paddock.

3. Feet. Sheep have to have their feet trimmed and they also have very delicate feet. Foot rot and foot scald affect sheep easily, and this means that when our cattle are in a wet field that will end up muddy, we don’t need to put the sheep in there until the field recovers. However, sheep and their delicate feet are actually pretty good in fields that are at risk for erosion, like steep fields, newly seeded fields or on the banks of a pond. If you’re careful not to over-graze, they aren’t as hard on a field because they just don’t weigh as much.

4. Lambing/Calving. Our sheep have actually done pretty well with lambing. We’ve only had to assist a handful of times. However, their babies are so, so very fragile. We learned this firsthand when a couple of lambs froze to death in weather that a calf would have been fine in. We have decided that lambing in December, January or February is not for us. We don’t have the facilities to keep the animals indoors for the time when they need protection from the elements.

5. Stupidity. Some say that sheep are the stupidest animal. From my experience, they’re not any stupider than cows. However, they are much more fragile than a cow. That means that their stupidity frequently leads to a major health issue or even death.

6. Eating. Sheep eat a huge variety of plants. They love things like dandelions, blackberry vines, and ragweed. This is great because we can put them in a field after the cows go through it and they’ll clean up what the cows didn’t like. Also, sheep gobble up poorer quality hay that cows and especially horses will turn up their noses at. I also like the fact that sheep don’t eat nearly as much as cows do.

7. Handling. I really like the fact that my daughters and I can handle the sheep and, other than our ram, Apollo, we don’t have to wait on my husband to be here. Cattle require extensive handling facilities that sheep just don’t need. We just run the sheep into a smallish pen and grab them! My girls and I can give shots, trim feet, worm, and tag the sheep all by ourselves.

Overall, I like sheep. The biggest challenge for us right now though is foot issues. We haven’t quite gotten a handle on a foot scald problem. Hopefully, we’ll tackle that and the sheep will be a little easier.

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