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ForageGrazing/ Animal HealthSoil Health Resource Guide

Multispecies Grazing: A Primer on Diversity

By December 10, 2019 No Comments

By Lee Rinehart, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Resilient farms are based on diversity of life, and while much of the focus of agricultural sustainability of late has been on diversity of crops, forages, and soil microbial populations, not much has been said about the diversity of grazing species. Multispecies grazing takes full advantage of biological diversity. Producers who work hard to increase pasture-plant diversity will also see an even greater advantage by adding diversity of livestock to the mix. Multispecies grazing works best when a multitude of forage species make up the pasture composition. As vegetation of pastures becomes more diverse, multispecies grazing tends to improve composition and utilization and will increase the carry capacity. This management practice may be one of the most biologically and economically viable systems available to producers, especially on landscapes that support heterogeneous plant communities.

Studies have shown that when you add sheep to a cattle herd, you get 20 to 25% greater productivity and carrying capacity over cattle alone, and 8 to 9% greater productivity and carrying capacity over sheep alone. This is because different animal species have different grazing habits and dietary overlap and select various forages and combinations of forages. Pastures that are grazed with multiple species have more uniform defoliation and defecation patterns, which affect nutrient cycling and plant–animal nutrition. While cattle prefer not to graze around their dung, sheep have been reported to graze around cattle dung, thus increasing the utilization of pasture. This uniformity of grazing contributes greatly to forage quality and resiliency by keeping forage growth constant and resetting the plants to the same stage of growth with each grazing event and preventing weedy or unpalatable plants from taking over.

Competition has led animals on the same landscape to occupy different dietary niches and develop complementary forage preferences and grazing and dietary habits. Managers can exploit the selective grazing habits of different species to shape the landscape and diversify production.

 Livestock producers know that cattle, sheep, and goats will often select different plant species. If you were to observe a herd of diverse grazing animals, you would notice that cattle (grazers) diets generally consist of about 70% grass, 15% forbs (commonly called weeds but including any broadleaf herbaceous plant), and 15% browse (twigs and leaves of shrubs and brushy plants). Thus, rangeland scientists have termed cattle grazers. Sheep (intermediate feeders) eat a diet of roughly 50% grass, 30% forbs, and 20% browse, while goats (browsers) consume around 30% grass, 10% forbs, and 60% browse. So, whereas there are some notable differences in diet choices among species, there is also some overlap, which is an important consideration when determining stocking rates in pastures.

This article was summarized from an excellent 20 page PDF document written by Lee Rinehart, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) Agriculture Specialist. We encourage you to go to www.greencoverseed.com and search for multispecies to read or download the entire article or visit the NCAT website for this or similar articles. https://attra.ncat.org

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