Can sheep improve your equine pasture?

Cross-grazing is a popular pasture management practice that many farm owners swear by. Before implementing it on your own farm, be sure to review these important considerations.

Horses are picky eaters, with a habit of overgrazing their favorite pasture grasses while leaving less desirable forage to grow tall. From the perspective of overall pasture utilization, this is inefficient. Cross-grazing your pastures with compatible grazers, such as sheep, is an excellent solution to better overall pasture utilization. When properly implemented, it has the added benefits of providing chemical-free weed and brush management, improving forage quality, and reducing parasite loads. Cross-grazing, however, is not a panacea to all your pasture management challenges, and comes with challenges that must be carefully considered.

What is cross-grazing?

Cross-grazing is generally defined as a grazing management practice in which different species of animals share the same pasture, whether together or separately, within the same growing season. Co-grazing, in which different species are pastured together, and leader-follower grazing, in which one species follows the other in a rotational grazing system, are two types of cross-grazing practices.

A look at the benefits

Efficient use of forage

As research continues to point to the benefits of plant diversity for horse, soil and pasture health, taking advantage of differences in forage preference can increase the number of animals your pasture supports while still providing quality forage for your grazing animals.

Cherrie Nolden has been cross-grazing horses with sheep on her Kansas and Wisconsin farms for 20+ years. An expert on these systems, she co-teaches a short course on multi-species rotational grazing at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, and is currently pursuing her PhD on novel types of parasite management in livestock. “The primary advantage of cross-grazing is more efficient use of your pasture forage,” says Cherrie. “Horses prefer grasses, and will selectively graze their favorite grass species first, whereas sheep prefer forbs and legumes.”

Parasite control

Another advantage of cross-grazing horses and sheep is improved parasite control (see sidebar at right). Parasites are host-specific, and most parasites that impact horses do not mature in sheep or other livestock, weakening the parasite’s life cycle. Cherrie, however, cautions that such benefits are sometimes overstated. “Even when cross-grazing, most horse owners do not have the available land to allow pastures sufficient rest between same-species grazing periods to effectively break the parasite life cycle,” she says. “Cross-grazing still helps from a parasite dilution perspective, but it is not a cure-all.”

Non-toxic weed control

Sheep, like goats, have the added benefit of providing chemical-free weed and brush management, providing equine-desirable pasture grasses a competitive advantage. Sheep in particular enjoy eating forbs and weedy vegetation that horses avoid, while goats select a higher percent of their diet as woody vegetation (up to 89% from Cherrie’s research). However, it is important to note that preferences for weeds versus grasses can vary in sheep, or even in the same sheep over time.

Research shows that such preferences are influenced by many factors, including social learning, forage nutrient concentration, plant abundance, and even the microbes in the grazer’s gut. This is true in all social herbivores, including horses. Keeping different species together often results in them sampling what the other species is eating. That being said, sheep will still tend to eat more broadleaf plants, whereas horses will eat more grasses overall, resulting in better weed management in co-grazed pastures.

Challenges

Cost and equipment

Implementing a cross-grazing system does not come without certain challenges, not the least of which is the additional equipment, labor and management involved, as well as the knowledge required to care for different animals and their unique needs. For example, single-strand electric may work for interior cross-fencing for horses, but it won’t contain sheep. In Cherrie’s experience, at least three strands of electric wire are needed. Cherrie particularly likes to use electrified net fencing to contain sheep, which have a reputation for being escape artists. A thick coat of wool makes for excellent insulation against electricity.

Bullying

Visit any online chat board where the topic of co-grazing horses and sheep is mentioned, and you will no doubt hear stories of horses biting, kicking, tossing or otherwise bullying sheep. Like many horse behaviors, such actions tend to be equine-specific. In Cherrie’s experience, horses bred and trained to herd cattle and other livestock often present the greatest risk.

However, Cherrie also notes that how you manage horses and sheep together is equally important. “Horses should be introduced carefully to sheep. Start by having the horses and sheep share a fence line, or use a stock panel.” Cherrie also suggests include using a nose bag to feed horses grain or supplements where sheep are present, as sheep will mob in to eat any horse feed on the ground. “Not surprisingly,” notes Cherrie, “horses hate that.”

Space

For effective cross-grazing, it is also critical to not overgraze the pastures. In general, one to four acres of pasture are needed per horse, though this number can vary substantially based on management, region, pasture production and the needs of the individual horse. A horse in training, lactating brood mares and younger horses generally require more pasture acreage than the backyard easy keeper. Cherrie notes the same is true for sheep, where the needs of all sheep are not identical. However, as a starting point, about five to six sheep require similar pasture acreage to that of a single horse.

Helpful tips

Whether you decide to co-graze horses and sheep in the same pasture, or use a leader-follower system, depends on your specific goals. In general, if the forage needs of one species are greater than the other, Cherries suggests having that species graze first in a pasture, then rotating the other species in behind it. Alternatively, if you have an easy-keeper horse that you don’t want grazing on higher digestible energy-dense clover, having sheep graze that pasture first can be an excellent strategy.

If you like the idea of adding sheep or other livestock to your horse property, consider finding someone local who is experienced in caring for that particular animal, and who can serve as a mentor. Cherrie also suggests you purchase sheep that have been raised in a similar manner and environment to your farm. “If, for example, you plan to have your sheep primarily out on pasture, do not purchase your sheep from a feed lot or show barn where sheep aren’t kept on pasture,” she says. “They will not acclimate as well.” In the context of cross-grazing, Cherrie does not feel that a particular breed of sheep is better than the other. Instead, Cherrie encourages, “find the traits you like.”

Though it will require a bit of extra work at the onset, implementing a cross-grazing system on your farm can offer many benefits to your pasture – and the health of your equine herd. Do your best to apply all the above considerations right off the bat to set yourself up for success!