Multi-Species Grazing: Horses and Cows and Goats, Oh My!
A handful of horses graze in a pasture one week; a herd of goats mow down its bushes and weeds the next. This multi-species rotational grazing system has its advantages, but whether they outweigh the disadvantages will depend on your situation, purposes, climate, and forage growth.
Advantages of grazing multiple species on land over grazing horses alone include more efficient plant use, better weed and brush control, improved natural parasite control, and more income per acre if you farm for a living and can accommodate more animals on your pastures. Disadvantages include possible disease transmission from one species to another and the need for more facilities, labor, and management.
In nature animals roam wild, and herds of horses or zebras travel long distances and eat native grasses, complementing the grazing behavior of bison, wild cattle, wildebeest, elk, etc., that eat grasses and forbs (any herb that is not a grass). They also share the ecosystem with ruminants such as deer, antelope, wild goats, and other animals that browse and prefer shrubs and forbs to grass.
Horses are selective grazers, overgrazing their favorite areas of a pasture while leaving other plants to grow tall. This creates roughs (piles of manure) and lawns (uncontaminated areas). If you add another species that prefers different plants, you can overcome the problem of inefficient forage use. Keep in mind, however, that if a pasture is already overgrazed, multiple species might do more harm than good. The pasture will remain overgrazed, which forces animals to graze closer to their own feces, leading to higher parasite loads.
Burt Staniar, MS, PhD, assistant professor of equine nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, is an advocate for multi-species grazing. "Cattle can come in, clean up some of the weeds or roughs as part of a management strategy to keep weeds down, and keep rough areas from expanding," he says.
Staniar notes an added bonus is that using animals for weed and brush control can be more effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly than using herbicides.
Steve Johnson, manager of Margaux Farm, a Thoroughbred operation in Central Kentucky, says stocking rate (production capacity) for land in his area is two livestock units per acre. "A livestock unit is one adult horse or one adult cow--or six sheep or goats," says Johnson. "But on our horse farms we often allocate three or four acres per horse. This means there's a lot of forage produced that doesn't get used by the horses."
Many horse owners mow extra forage, especially mature patches horses won't eat. Some even bale it for hay or bedding. "Thus, they get some use of the production that would otherwise go to waste, but it could also be used with multi-species grazing," notes Johnson. "Traditionally, many people run cattle behind horses in a rotational system, to eat the rougher grass. Some integrate the cattle and horses, but I've never done that because sometimes you're trying to do one thing with horses and cattle are in the way, or vice versa."
Staniar adds, "With horses alone in a rotational system, you end up with some parts of a pasture that are never grazed." When these uneaten plants mature and go to seed, they'll spread over the pasture. "You have to mow so weeds and thistle patches won't take over your fields."
Other species--whether cattle, sheep, or goats--eat those plants and prevent them from going to seed.
Savvy Species Selection
You'll need to consider your climate and geographic area when approaching this pasture management method; find the mix of livestock species that works best for your farm and your chosen purpose for grazing multiple species. Consult your local Cooperative Extension Service personnel (www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension) for advice about your area.
Goats and sheep can help tame weeds or brush that would otherwise encroach on pastures. "The problem with goats is that they are difficult to contain and handle," explains Staniar. "Yet it's worth some experimentation. Goats can be very beneficial in reclamation of pastureland that has gone to brush or weeds."
In western areas of the United States, where invasive weeds have taken over certain rangelands, many farmers use large groups of goats to help revitalize the land; the goats eat the weeds and halt progression of these undesirable plants.
"Goats are browsers and eat the leaves off bushes, yet they don't like legumes," explains Staniar. "The management situation in one case was to put goats in a pasture to graze off invasive species and bushes, then a person went in with a hand-held seeder to seed legumes. After these come up, the goats leave them alone. This was a way to reclaim a pasture and grow plants that horses would eat."
Poultry "Other species that can be turned out on pasture include chickens or turkeys," says Staniar. "One of the benefits is that they are very good at spreading manure around--they tear up the piles to get any grain that wasn't fully digested or to eat the insects that live in fresh manure." This also helps with parasite control; many of the parasite eggs passed in manure will be scattered--and dried out--and won't survive. More on this in a moment.
"There may be some concern with botulism, because there can be more Clostridium load on fields where poultry have ranged," he notes, referring to C. botulinum, botulism's causative bacterium. "This can be a factor when making haylage from forage on these fields."
Haylage is hay harvested at its nutritive best, then stored in anaerobic conditions while still at a relatively high moisture content. C. botulinum thrives in moist, airtight environments such as sealed haylage bales, but it is not usually present in normal baled hay.
"Generally you have different parasites in different species (they are host-specific); they can't mature in the wrong host," says Staniar. "You can break the life cycle of most parasites by multi-species grazing."
When equine-specific parasite eggs hatch, the larvae move onto grass plants where they might be ingested by a horse. If they're eaten by a cow or sheep rather than a horse, those larvae won't mature.
The potential reduction in parasite loads is also due to reduced survival of larvae in the shorter grass. While multi-species grazing is a good companion strategy to using dewormers (particularly with increasing drug resistance in parasites), keep in mind that one week of ruminant grazing most likely will not affect horse parasite burdens on any given pasture. Several weeks or even months, depending on the climate, are required to notice a parasite load reduction.
It's important to consider diseases that can be passed from one species to another (from cattle or goats to horses, and vice versa) with multi-species grazing. You certainly don't want to be paying vet bills for multi-species grazing-acquired illness that could've been prevented. Do your homework to find out if there are any diseases (e.g., the zoonotic bacterial disease leptospirosis, for which cattle are often the host) prevalent in your area that might need to be addressed.
Biosecurity is also an important issue. When you bring in other animals, this changes your ability to keep your animals isolated. "If there are horses on the farm where you got goats from, for instance, the goats may carry a horse disease with them (via hooves, hair coats, and equipment)," explains Staniar. Fungal infections such as ringworm, for instance, are readily transmitted from species to species via skin contact and infected equipment. There is also some evidence that suggests bovine papillomavirus causes equine sarcoids (skin tumors).
External pest control is another challenge when grazing different species together. Horn flies, for instance, reside on cattle; these biting, blood-sucking insects can cause a lot of discomfort to horses.
"To have a successful multi-species grazing system, it must be well-managed using some kind of rotational plan," states Staniar. "It can't be just sticking the horses, cattle, sheep, or goats all together."
There must be commitment to making multi-species grazing work and a certain mindset for wanting to do it, with the aim of good stewardship of the land.
You must consider additional fencing requirements, as you cannot successfully contain sheep, goats, or calves with traditional horse fencing. A movable electric fence (such as polytape) or the addition of an electric wire to your existing fences might potentially solve this problem.
"When managing a multi-species system you need to understand the plants, soils, and animals--and their differences--to complement grazers and browsers, the plants they use, and the way they eat," says Staniar. "A lot of horse people don't even know that ruminants have no top incisors. Cattle eat grass by grasping it with the tongue and breaking it off; they cannot graze grass as low to the ground as horses do, and won't graze a pasture bare if left on it too long."
There are many benefits to multi-species grazing of your horse pastures and fields if you are willing to put the resources into managing the animals and land. You can better use the forages that are grown, keep your horses healthier, and even add to your farm's bottom line.
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.