Cows and sheep can live together and it is a common practice for producers to have more than one grazing species in one space. This practice significantly improves the use of forages and it reduces the expenses of mowing and spraying weeds in pasture. The advantage lies in the way the different species compliment each other.
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Co – grazing
This practice, also referred to sometimes as flerding, is the practice of grazing mixed species groups of animals that consistently stay together under free range conditions. It can be done in two different ways with the cows and sheep in the same pasture, at the same time or the cows can be given access to the range land first and then the sheep can follow afterwards, grazing the same land. Feed requirements of both animals and pasture help with determining the choice of either system. Also, split grazing requires that cows be given access to the pasture because sheep generally have a heavier parasitic load.
Co-grazing emphasizes the ability of cows and sheep to live together because it allows the consumption of a more diverse vegetative profile. Cows prefer grasses and sheep will almost always consume more broad leaf forbs and sometimes weeds. Cows use their tongues to grasp the blade of the grass and they take that into their mouth, often grazing about four inches above the soil surface. Sheep however have a different grazing pattern where they eat more with their lips than with their tongues and they usually come into contact with parasitic worms or larvae. Sheep graze more selectively and lower in the sward.
What is The Relationship Between Cows and Sheep?
Their grazing is complementary. Cows tend to range over a larger area when foraging than sheep and other small ruminants. Sheep in flerds, a mix of flock and herds, stick with the cows, distributing foraging over a large area than what is possible with just the flock. The cows in these groups usually decide where the flerd will graze and the sheep will follow.This presents an advantage of range management as the sheep will follow the cows instead of overgrazing a lush piece of grass. The grazing pressure is therefore spread over a larger surface area.
As available forage decreases, dietary overlap between sheep and cows tends to decrease, cows will focus on lower quality but more available forage while sheep will continue to select their preferred diet. When cows and sheep work the same turf, they utilize pasture more firmly.
Adding two different species to a pasture can definitely boost utilization because grazing competition is greater within a species than among species. A well managed rotational grazing system can carry more pounds of sheep and cows than it can carry cows and sheep alone. Mixing species is said to increase gains in meat production by as much as 24%.
For cows and sheep to be able to live together, there is need for creating bonds between the two species. To avoid bonding problems between cows and sheep, which are usually caused by personality differences, farmers can start by penning young lambs with cows for at least thirty days, feeding them together and leaving room for the lambs to escape whenever it is necessary. When this process is done right, a good bond can be established within the first fourteen days.
Bonding is beneficial to both the animals and the farmers. Sheep proof fences on the range will not be required because the sheep will stay with the cows. Sheep that are not bonded to the cows escape through the fences that are designed to hold cows only but bonded sheep will not leave the cows and wander outside the fence, even when it is high off the ground. You can always tell about the strength of the bond by how far sheep stray from the cows, the stronger the bond, the shorter the distance between the sheep and the cows.
How Much Do Sheep Eat More Than Cows?
Sheep are considerably smaller and much lighter than cows but when compared in terms of how much they eat, they eat a lot more. Sheep normally eat 2.5 to 3.5% of their body weight and sometimes more while cows consume feed that is around 2% of their body weight.
With regards to animal production from mixed grazing, research over the years has shown that the weight gain of sheep per hectare was 10.2kgs when grazed with cows as compared to only 6.9kgs when grazed alone.
Health Benefits of Mixing Cows and Sheep
The system of mixing cows and sheep is particularly useful when there are parasite risks in high concentration per unit of land and there are young susceptible animals which are totally dependent on pasture for their nutrient intake. In such situations, mixed stocking leads to higher total production per unit area. Gastrointestinal parasites from sheep cannot survive in the stomach of cows and vice versa therefore multiple species grazing can reduce parasite loads. This decrease results in fewer treatments for worms which can slow resistance of parasites to conventional de-wormers which is also a problem with small ruminants, pasture management for sheep is generally worm management.
Except for susceptibility to parasites, sheep do not have increased incidences of health issues but there is always need to be careful and to introduce internal and external parasite programs.
The system is also useful in cases where pasturage in times of surplus becomes excessively mature and rich for sheep but it can still be eaten by larger ruminants like cows.
Mineral Tolerance Differences
The management of sheep and cows in a confined space is not simple work. Their mineral tolerance levels are different, sheep cannot tolerate as much copper as cows, they are highly sensitive to copper toxicosis. This therefore means that the water sources for the two species have to be separated because copper sulphate is used to kill algae in the water tanks used by cows.
Multiple species grazing will not fit every operation. Cows and sheep can live together but they often require different working facilities, fences, and management skills.