When new homesteaders begin planning their homestead they often first visualize an abundant garden, overflowing with fruit and vegetables, and focus their food production efforts on learning to garden. This is wise, but perhaps a disproportionate level of attention is paid solely to the labor-intensive task of annual gardening.

Vegetable gardening produces primarily carbohydrates, versus the less labor-intensive task of rotational grazing of livestock, which produces a perennial supply of protein, fat, and pelts (if desired). Also, unlike most plants, protein derived from animals is complete and includes all nine essential amino acids.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I strongly advocate annual and perennial gardening. We have a 5,000-square-foot garden ourselves, along with dozens of fruit trees, vines, and beds. However, over the past decade, we’ve practiced intensive multi-species grazing with cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks on our homestead, where we are serious about preparedness and long-term self-sufficiency.

We’ve gardened in years with plenty of rainfall and consecutive years of historic drought, only to watch the crop yields suffer greatly in tough conditions. The livestock, however, grew and sustained us regardless of the weather.

The aim of this two-part article is to share some of what we’ve learned and to encourage readers to consider multi-species livestock grazing, particularly for long-term self-reliance in uncertain times. This article does not include other important sources of animal husbandry that manage, such as rabbits and bees, since we manage those enterprises separately from grazing animals.

Multi-Species Grazing Goals for Preppers

I know that many of my readers are preparedness oriented. For that audience, let me begin by stating our goals for multi-species grazing, as they relate to a grid-down scenario. In order of priority, they are:

  1. Maximize use of available land to produce as much food (nutrition) as possible for the long-term.
  2. Ensure operational security of food production by reducing animal noise and ensuring protection.
  3. Minimize labor per calorie produced.
  4. Develop potential for income and/or barter.
  5. Allow animals to use their natural instincts to improve the soil, thereby ensuring our ability to perpetually achieve the previous goals.

Benefits of Multi-Species Rotational Grazing

There are numerous benefits to multi-species grazing, especially for those who start out with rural or mountain properties (rather than pastures) that have marginal grazing land in need of improvement. Of course, it’s well understood that cattle prefer grass over other types of plants, but what if the land has weeds rather than lush pasture? What then?

We can tell you from personal experience that even if you begin with lush pasture, the land will soon be populated with a high density of brush and weeds if only horses are allowed to graze. This is because having only one animal species allows it to graze and quickly re-graze its favorite forages, such as clover, quickly killing the roots and allowing un-grazed weeds to grow and hog sunlight.

Here’s what our pastures looked like when we first moved to the country. This first picture, taken in winter, shows pretty much nothing but broomsedge, a plant indicative of low pH in the soil.

broomsedge

This second picture, taken in summer, shows the same fields giving way to unpalatable dog fennel, brambles, privet and more woody plants. Very little grass other than dallisgrass and some old-growth fescue.grazing weeds

 

We’re fortunate today to enjoy excellent pasture health, but as you can see that wasn’t the case a decade ago when we weren’t grazing any animals on our new homestead. When we began our “pastures” more resembled weed forests, littered with brambles and woody forbs (broad-leaved plants); some weeds were over seven-feet tall, such as dog fennel, blue vervain, and Chinese privet, with equally non-desirable plants, such as bitter sneezeweed underneath their canopies. Certainly, it was nothing akin to the mix of nutritious clovers, ryegrass, vetch, fescue, lush crabgrass, and Bermuda that our animals enjoy today.

So how did we make the transition from poor grazing land to excellent grazing land?

We began with cattle in our fields but quickly learned that, by themselves, they made matters worse by destroying the little bit of grass and clover we had. By reading books 100 years old or more, we studied how homesteaders formerly managed their land and looked for natural solutions that didn’t rely on chemicals or equipment.

Indeed, the solution to this problem can be found in nature, for rarely in nature can one observe only a monoculture of plants or animals. Rather, diversity is the norm, and the solution. For our situation, this meant that we needed to embrace multiple-species livestock grazing if we wanted to achieve a polyculture of lush forages.

For example, in contrast to cows, sheep exhibit a preference for forbs and weeds before grass, while goats prefer to browse brush before choosing forbs. Grazing cows, sheep, and goats together ensured that not only will each get the nutrition they want but that all plants are grazed evenly. Unlike cows, sheep and goats do a great job of controlling blackberry brambles, thistle, honeysuckle, multi-flora rose and other uncontrolled pasture plants, and those plants became quickly eradicated from our pastures.

Another benefit of multi-species rotational grazing relates to parasites.

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While cows know to not graze near their own manure deposits, often for up to a year, sheep will graze near cow manure deposits without fear of contracting the cow’s parasites, which are specific only to the cows. Thus, our pastures are more evenly grazed, which has allowed lush grasses to increasingly take over, absorb nutrients, hog sunlight, and fill in.

Additionally, in many areas of the country, the existing forage mix may be harmful to one species but not another. For example, while this isn’t a problem in the southeastern United States, some western states are plagued with plants harmful to cattle, such as leafy spurge and larkspur. These plants are not harmful to sheep, and allowing sheep to graze them has been shown to help restore grass growth to the land, creating a better habitat for cattle.

For example, while this isn’t a problem in the southeastern United States, some western states are plagued with plants harmful to cattle, such as leafy spurge and larkspur. These plants are not harmful to sheep, and allowing sheep to graze them has been shown to help restore grass growth to the land, creating a better habitat for cattle.

Cows and sheep together are a very natural and beneficial mix. However, for many situations, the real benefits begin to accrue when goats are added to the herd.

Unlike sheep, goats prefer the woody plants, and thereby have the ability to clean up and control significant weed and brush outbreaks. Many homesteaders will begin with land that has either been abandoned or is just new to grazing, and this is a perfect situation for goats.

Problem plants that are poisonous to other species, such as certain thistles and poison hemlock, pose no problem for goats, which will often graze six feet high and eat the light-hogging canopy before chewing the undesirable plant (from the cow’s perspective) to the ground. This creates an opportunity for grass to fill in.

Beyond cows, sheep, and goats, we found that poultry and pigs fit in very nicely to our multi-species grazing model as well.

solar fence charger

In a grid-down situation, you’ll be grateful for a solar charger

Pigs, of course, prefer to root, which makes them perfect choices for woodlots or marginal perimeter land. Most breeds can easily be trained to a solar electric fence charger that’s located just a few inches off the ground (snout high), though frequent walking along the fence line is necessary as pigs just love to root dirt and debris up to the fence, which could cause it to short out. Other than that, they’ll clean up the forest in short order, plowing through downed trees for grubs, eating nuts and acorns, and digging roots.

When their paddock is cleared, simply create a new adjacent paddock for them, move them in, and (if you’re so inclined) toss some seeds (turnip, pumpkin, squash) into the soil they just disturbed. Return them several months later; they’ll harvest the crop for you, free of charge, and turn your seeds into pork.

When their paddock is cleared, simply create a new adjacent paddock for them, move them in, and (if you’re so inclined) toss some seeds (turnip, pumpkin, squash) into the soil they just disturbed. Return them several months later; they’ll harvest the crop for you, free of charge, and turn your seeds into pork.

Some breeds of pigs can be effectively grazed along with the cows, sheep, and goats. I’m thinking mainly of the Large Black breed of pigs, and while they are effective grazers, like all pigs, they like (and need) to root. As a result, you’ll likely end up with pastures ranging from lightly torn to having large wallows. In our experience, it’s best to keep the pigs in the woods.

Poultry fit in perfectly to this model, since many species in nature have a naturally synergistic relationship. Pulling a mobile hen house a couple of days behind the grazers allows hens to scratch through manure piles and harvest grubs. This provides them with much-needed (and free) protein, while drastically reducing the potential fly population. Of course, the hens will convert the grasses and grubs into nutrient-rich eggs for your family.

In our case, we also mix turkeys along with the hens and move them together as a flock. The turkeys tend to roost on top of the portable hen house at night, while the hens sleep safely inside. While some older research suggests that turkeys and chickens shouldn’t be raised together due to blackhead, we have never found this to be the case.

Chickens and turkeys act as the sanitation crew, ridding the pasture of grasshoppers, crickets, and army worms, which can wreak havoc in these parts by destroying entire pastures in a matter of days! For those in the south, we have also found a huge benefit to including poultry along with ruminants; free-range chickens and turkeys, by virtue of their constant scratching, eradicate fire ants in those areas!

Our pastures improved remarkably and can now support a lot of livestock. Of course, we worked hard to achieve those improvements, but it was worth it.

Finally, and something of a side note, pigs, sheep, and goats can be used in border and woodlot areas to reduce fuel loads, which, in turn, reduce wildfire risk.

For us, the primary goal was to end up with more grass so that we can graze more cattle, and multi-species livestock management helped significantly to achieve this. However, there was always the risk that animals may re-graze their favorite plants, so a specific management tool was required to prevent this.

In part two, I define rotational grazing, and cover fencing, operational security and how to get started.