CATTLE producers in South Dakota are teaming up with South Dakota State University (SDSU) extension specialists to apply new research to a generations-old idea that for every cow grazing on rangeland, a ewe can be added without having 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 effects on range quality and quantity and what the ideal stocking rate is for multi-species grazing.
"The idea of grazing sheep and cattle together -- at a one-to-one stocking rate -- isn't a new concept," SDSU Extension beef specialist Ken Olson said. "It's an age-old 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 pointed out, is 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% 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 are the animal unit equivalent to one cow.
The SDSU Extension 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, the announcement said.
Historical evidence suggests 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, according to SDSU Extension rangeland management specialist Roger Gates.
"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 explained 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."
For cattle producers who are not currently running sheep, SDSU Extension sheep specialist David Ollila said he hopes the research results confirm the pairing to be a healthy relationship. He acknowledged that one reason some cattle producers may choose not to run sheep on their ranch is simply the fact that although sheep are relatively inexpensive to raise, they require more labor than cattle.
Ollila sees this 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 that 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 multi-species grazing relationship."