Multi-species grazing minimizes fire fuel load

·5 min read
Goats graze in an Arkansas Valley field. Integrating goats into a cattle and sheep grazing program is one way to clear out underbrush that can elevate fire danger, according to Alison Crane, a sheep and meat goat extension specialist at Kansas State University
Goats graze in an Arkansas Valley field. Integrating goats into a cattle and sheep grazing program is one way to clear out underbrush that can elevate fire danger, according to Alison Crane, a sheep and meat goat extension specialist at Kansas State University

Goats could be a valuable tool for mitigating fire hazards in fire-prone areas, due to their effectiveness at clearing out undesirable underbrush, according to a sheep and meat goat extension specialist at Kansas State University.

As recent conditions have proved, warmer, drier conditions put the surrounding region at heightened risk for damaging wildfires. Many communities continue to be on high alert after a rash of fires broke out in connection to high winds coupled with low humidity on December 15.

Alison Crane, who was raised in Alabama but received her master’s and doctorate in ruminant nutrition and reproduction from North Dakota State University, spoke recently via webinar about the benefits of multi-species grazing, including fire suppression.

In recent years, introducing a diversity of livestock into traditional grazing systems has become popular as a way to manage forage and improve soil health.

“Most studies indicate greater production out of the animals and better utilization of the pasture from cattle and sheep or cattle with sheep and goats, together or at different times,” she said.

Justine Henderson, a livestock extension agent based at Minneapolis, Kansas, who previously interned for a year at the Colorado State University Beef Improvement Center, can vouch for the increased interest. Lately she’s been fielding more calls about multispecies grazing and how to decide between adding sheep, or goats, or both.

Crane admitted she has a soft spot for sheep but said goats can offer greater benefits faster.

“The biggest thing to consider is how much labor and cost upfront you’re willing to take on,” she said. “If you incorporate goats into a grazing system, you’re going to have a higher upfront cost, because you’ll have to improve fences more, and there will be more labor there as well. But I think the biggest benefit comes from the goats; they do a much better job with brush management and put more pressure on it more quickly.”

Crane has worked with several producers who saw considerable improvements in their forages in just a few years’ time. One Central Kansas feedlot operator and soil health advocate, Shane Tiffany, was particularly pleased with the results.

“He could have put both sheep and goats in there, and he would have seen greater results more quickly, but it does take more management,” Crane said. “He wanted something he could just turn out and that’s why you see more people choosing sheep rather than goats.”

“Sheep will eventually have similar effects on pasture,” she added, “it’s just going to take them longer.”

What about in drier climates where droughts are frequent?

“If we have hardier type goats, they will handle that better than a lot of our sheep breeds will,” Crane responded. “They do a nice job of maintaining body condition with less forage. It’s similar to cattle: some breeds handle adversity better than others.”

“We also need to be willing to cut stocking rates down when we have those drier years, and we can also give them a bit of supplementation on pastures,” she continued. “It kind of defeats the purpose a little bit, but some years you just have to do it.”

Crane doesn’t recommend the most popular meat goat breed, the boer goat, if forage improvement is the primary objective.

Due to selective breeding over time, boer goats tend to be grazers rather than browsers, she said.

“One of the best breeds is a Spanish goat. They are very hardy and do a great job of attacking forage. If you want a classical meat goat, the Kiko is the way to go,” she said.

Compared to cattle, sheep can be stocked at a rate of 5 to 1 and goats at a rate of 6 to 1, she said.

Crane had several tips for developing an overall grazing strategy.

Running cattle, sheep and goats all together at once is more feasible than a lot of people think, she said.

“In pastures with a low parasite load, I wouldn’t hesitate to graze all of the animals together,” she said. “The only time sheep and goat parasites are a concern is if you have very young calves, but otherwise it’s not much of a concern.”

“Goats are browsers and are particularly good for managing invasive species,” she continued. “Sheep share more cross-over with cattle, but grazing them together still exerts selective pressure on the forages that cattle are reluctant to eat.”

Crane is familiar with one producer who brought in wool sheep to graze alongside his cattle, leaving them together until lambing season started.

“Within two weeks of being together they bond, and he doesn’t have a guard dog out with those animals,” she said. “In that situation, you might lose some (to predators) in the first two weeks, but then the sheep learn to stick close to the cattle, because they realize they aren’t going to get eaten by coyotes that way.”

More often than not, some predator control will be needed in the form of llamas, donkeys or guard dogs, she said.

If cows are in late gestation and requiring peak nutrition, consider grazing them first and allowing them to have the highest quality forage, then let the sheep and goats follow behind, she suggested.

Regardless, be aware that most cattle fencing will not keep goats in, she added.

“The smaller the squares the better in your woven wire fences,” she said. “The reason I say that is goats are famous for getting their heads stuck. You can always add hot wires across the bottom and maybe across the top, but the biggest thing to remember is if you use a hot wire make sure it’s hot. There are many different strategies to consider.”

This article originally appeared on LA Junta Tribune: Multi-species grazing minimizes fire fuel load

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