The Mob

by Eleanor Kane on June 27th, 2012

Multispecies Grazing at it's Finest

When we started farming, we committed ourselves to multispecies grazing.  This was news to our animals when we brought them to the farm this past spring.  We separated the sheep, goats and llamas so that they could all see each other but still had fences between them.  This allowed them to adjust from their trip to the farm, as well as check out their new pasture-mates.  After a couple days, we combined all those pastures into a single large one.  It took a little while, but eventually they got to know each other and are now inseparable.
Acquiring some sort of guardian animal was very important to us.  Our farm is full of bobcats and coyotes, as well as neighborhood dogs.  We were nervous about our lambs and goats being out in the far fields day after day with only an electric fence around them.  Fencing works great at keeping most animals in and most animals out, but you can never underestimate a hungry predator.  Raising animals not only means providing food, water and shelter, but also an environment where they’re never stressed or scared.  That meant that if we couldn’t be around all the time to watch for predators, we needed something that could.  We initially considered guardian dogs but decided against it for two main reasons.  The first was that caring for a dog is much different than sheep and goats.  They need food brought out to the field and we already had one dog in our life.  The second reason was that they are so excellent at guarding, some dogs have a tendency to guard their flock from other humans.  This meant that once the dogs bonded with us, it would be hard to ever have someone else do chores on the farm and the dogs would be stressed when visitors arrived.  Llamas, which are naturally curious and watchful animals, seemed like the best solution.  They eat grass, so there was no need for special food, and they’re friendly towards people while being vigilant about any prey animal.  They don’t like it when Russell comes near their pasture and they even took it upon themselves to chase a hawk away from our chickens.  We feel confident with them watching our lambs and goats, and that’s a great feeling for everyone.
There are certainly some challenges to multispecies grazing.  One is diet: goats like to browse, which means eating brambles and the lower parts of some trees.  Sheep prefer just grass.  Luckily for us, our fields had been fairly neglected before we started farming here and are rife with delicious treats for the goats.  As soon as we move them into a new paddock, the sheep go straight for the clover and grasses while the goats busily strip the leaves off nettle plants, eat the multi-flora roses and munch on curly dock.  They’ve saved us a considerable amount of time clearing what we would consider weeds.

One other important thing to keep in mind is the mineral needs of each animal.  Llamas and sheep cannot tolerate copper, while it’s an essential nutrient for goats.  To manage this, we fence in a single bramble patch where there isn’t much forage for the sheep and llamas to begin with and separate out the goats for a day or two.  This gives everyone a chance to eat all the minerals they want and we do this repetitively throughout the season to make sure all their nutritional needs are being met.  Admittedly, as the species bond with each other, it’s harder and harder to separate the goats.  We recently had to convince a lamb to leave the goat pasture and a goat to join the rest of its kind.  These moments certainly make farming fun and exciting.

While we’ll breed our ewes this fall and raise our own lambs from now on, we won’t be keeping any goats for breeding.  Luckily, our friends at Frizzell Hill Farm do a fantastic job and we’re excited to continue to work with them buying kids every spring. 

Multispecies grazing has helped cut down on the amount of work around here, since there’s often a single fence to move and a single bucket of water to fill.  It has also increased our ability to manage healthy pastures, since the goats do the lion’s share of weeding.  Our goal is to incorporate our laying hens in this rotation, so stay tuned for when we complete their mobile chicken coop!

Posted in Farm Life, Lambs    Tagged with Guardian llamas, multispecies grazing, goats, sheep, lambs, grassfed


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