Ranch wisdom put to the test

News
Apr 19, 2013
by WLJ

South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension specialists and South Dakota cattle producers are teaming up to apply research to a generations-old idea that for every cow grazing on rangeland, a ewe can be added and not have a negative impact on forage quality or availability.

This new research, which began in 2012, will study stocking rates and range health when cattle and sheep are grazed together. It will determine the impacts on range quality and quantity and what the ideal stocking rate for multi-species grazing is.

“The idea of grazing sheep and cattle together—at a one-to-one stocking rate— isn’t a new concept,” said Ken Olson, SDSU Extension beef specialist. “It’s an ageold piece of rancher wisdom that has floated around for a long time. In fact, I can find references to it in Range Management texts from the 1930s.”

The issue, Olson points out, is the fact that there isn’t any research to back the idea. “Or at least, I and all the researchers involved have not seen any research looking at a one-to-one stocking rate.”

The research that has been done in the U.S. and throughout the world has looked at range health when 50 percent of a cattle herd is replaced with its animal unit equivalent of sheep and both species graze together. For example, if the stocking rate for a particular pasture is 100 cows, then 50 cows would be removed and replaced with 250 sheep because five sheep is the animal unit equivalent to one cow.

SDSU Extension’s research isn’t looking to replace cattle with sheep; it’s researching the impacts on range health and livestock production when an equal number of sheep are added to the equation.

Historical evidence tells us that for as long as South Dakota’s grasslands have existed, multitudes of species grazed them concurrently. Species diversity on rangeland enhances plant diversity and overall range health, says Roger Gates, SDSU Extension rangeland management specialist.

“Characteristics of healthy rangeland are a great diversity of plants and, in a natural system, a great diversity of herbivores,” Gates said.

Because cattle and sheep prefer different plant species—cattle tend to graze more grasses while sheep tend to graze more forbs and shrubs—Gates explains that running them together should improve range quality and quantity.

“This evens out the pressure across a diversity of plants presented,” Gates said. “It’s generally beneficial to range health that we, to the extent that we can in agricultural operations, emulate and imitate natural systems.”

Glad Valley ranchers Dan and Sharon Anderson would agree with Gates. For at least two generations, the Anderson family has grazed sheep and cattle together on most of the more than 11,000 acres of rangeland they manage. Dan says that not only does this allow him to bring in profits from two livestock enterprises, but grazing sheep also keeps noxious weeds and sage brush under control.

“We always figured we could very easily run one sheep per cow and never impact the amount of grass available, because the overlap of species they eat is so minimal,” Dan said.

Land stewardship plays an important role in the Andersons’ grassland management. Over the years they have installed more than 15 miles of cross fencing and 10 miles of pipeline to allow for and enhance rotational grazing. Although the cattle and sheep graze the same pastures, they don’t run the animals side by side. Instead, they follow the cattle rotation through a pasture with their 500-ewe sheep flock.

All the Andersons’ pastures are fenced for both sheep and cattle and they have concrete steps in their watering tanks to provide an escape route in case a sheep falls into one of the 2-foot deep tanks.

Dan says there are several reasons that they choose not to run the two species through a pasture at the same time. Primarily, though, because the Andersons use dogs and donkeys for predator control in their sheep flock and if the sheep and cattle are in the same location at the same time, both the dogs have a tendency to herd the cattle away from the sheep and the donkeys pay more attention to the cattle than sheep.

These are common reasons most ranchers don’t run sheep and cattle in the same pasture at the same time says David Ollila, SDSU Extension sheep specialist. Like the Andersons, ranchers currently running both species most often will run the sheep either ahead or behind the cattle.

For cattle producers who are not currently running sheep, Ollila hopes the research results show this to be a healthy relationship. He acknowledges that one reason some cattle producers may not currently run sheep on their ranch is simply the fact that although they are relatively inexpensive to raise, sheep require more labor than cattle.

Ollila sees this fact as an opportunity for existing cattle producers to help the next generation get into ranching.

“A big challenge for many beginning sheep producers is land availability,” Ollila said. “There are many cattle operations who could take in a sheep enterprise by leasing land to a beginning producer. This may provide an opportunity for current ranchers to generate additional revenue by developing a multispecies grazing relationship.”

The research is off to a slow start due to the 2012 drought. The research team is currently looking for cattle producers who would be interested in cooperating in this research project. To learn more or to volunteer to participate in this project, contact Ollila at the SDSU Extension Regional Center in Rapid City, 605/394-2236 or david.ollila@sdstate.edu. — WLJ

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