When new preppers begin planning their retreat or bug-out location they often first visualize an abundant garden, overflowing with fruit and vegetables, and focus their food production efforts on learning to garden. This is a wise approach indeed, but perhaps a disproportionate level of attention is paid solely to the labor-intensive task of annual gardening, which produces primarily carbohydrates, versus the less labor-intensive task of livestock grazing, which produces a perennial supply of primarily protein, fat, and pelts (if desired). Also, unlike most plants, protein derived from animals is complete and includes all nine essential amino acids (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_protein).
Now, please don’t get me wrong; I strongly advocate annual and perennial gardening, and we have a 5,000-square-foot garden ourselves, along with numerous fruit trees, vines, and beds. However, in the past decade, we’ve also practiced intensive multi-species grazing with cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks on our homestead, where we are serious “preppers” and committed to 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 article is to share some of what we’ve learned and to encourage readers to consider multi-species livestock grazing, particularly if the SHTF. This article does not include other important sources of animal husbandry that we raise, such as rabbits and bees, since they are normally managed separately from grazing animals.
Let me begin by stating what are, for us, the goals for multi-species grazing, as they relate to a TEOTWAWKI situation. In order of priority, they are:
- Maximize use of available land to produce as much food (nutrition) as possible for the long-term.
- Ensure operational security of food production by reducing animal noise and ensuring protection.
- Minimize labor per calorie produced.
- Develop potential for income and/or barter.
- Allow animals to use their natural instincts to improve the soil, thereby ensuring our ability to perpetually achieve the previous goals.
There are numerous benefits to multi-species grazing, especially for preppers who will often 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, if only horses are allowed to graze, the land will soon be populated with a high density of brush and weeds that cows will avoid. 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. As for us, we’re fortunate to enjoy excellent pasture health today, but that wasn’t the case a decade ago when we weren’t grazing any animals on our new homestead. At that time 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 grazing relates to parasites. 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.
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 preppers 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. Pigs, of course, prefer to root, which makes them perfect choices for woodlots or marginal perimeter land. They can easily be trained to a solar electric fence 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.
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 armyworms, 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!
It should be noted that one potential pitfall of multi-species grazing is the potential for bullying. Now, you may think I’m referring to the larger cows bullying the sheep and goats, but I’m not. We’ve witnessed, on more than one occasion, our ram literally do just that to a cow he didn’t like; he would step back, charge, and ram her side, launching her in the air 10 feet away! Bullying resolves itself and isn’t a significant problem, but don’t be surprised if you witness this.
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. I don’t have to stress how important this benefit would be if the SHTF. 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.
Rotational grazing is simply moving the animals from one paddock to another to allow the previously grazed paddock to recover. In that way, the grazed plants, such as the clover, can grow sufficiently until it can be grazed again. The time for this rest varies greatly, depending on local climatic conditions, time of the year, and forage in question but is often anywhere from three weeks to two months. Very intensive rotational grazing, or mob grazing, is when a large number of animals are put in a small paddock for a very brief period of time (hours). While this can be an effective tool today, you will unlikely practice such an intensive method in a TEOTWAWKI scenario.
In our model, we have a four-strand, high-tensile electric fence around the perimeter of the grazing land, powered by a solar fence charger. This is a permanent fence with metal T-posts that is supported on the corners with six-inch wood posts. We find that the easiest way to rotationally graze the animals without having permanent paddocks is to strip graze. We achieve this by using plastic step-in posts that section off a slim strip of the paddock. When that paddock has been grazed 75%, we move the herd into the next strip and allow the previous section to recover.
Unfortunately, as many readers may realize, parasites are a significant and ongoing concern with sheep and goats. Regardless of the livestock species, worm eggs are deposited in the animal’s manure, which then incubates the egg until it hatches. If the species that deposited the manure is allowed to graze nearby when it hatches, it will ingest the parasite. Repeated exposure of this kind will result in a build-up of parasites. Rotational grazing is also a very effective method of parasite control, since animals are moved away from their manure deposits, which incubate their species-specific parasites. Further, when they return to graze, the plant growth will be taller and since parasites tend to stay on the lower parts of the plant, the risk of parasite contraction is further reduced. This will become a critical issue in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, as dewormers and parasite controls will be not only cost-prohibitive but likely unavailable. Even if they are available, if you procure them, you inadvertently advertise that you have the animals, which may not be wise. Instead, choose animals that have some resistance to parasites, such as Katahdin sheep, and practice rotational grazing.
One alternative to rotational grazing for parasite control is the leader-follower method. In this model, species are grazed separately in paddocks and follow one another to clean up what the previous species chose to not graze without any fear of parasite contraction. We do not prefer this model, because it is more time and labor consuming, and it requires more fencing. Some do prefer it, however, and it can be an effective tool.
I would like to stress that this concept of rotational grazing is VERY important if you hope to:
- maximize production on your land,
- improve grass coverage, and
- control parasites.
Failure to use this management tool will likely result in an ever-increasing population of weeds and browse, which may be fine if you hope to raise only goats and sheep, but meat production per acre will be significantly reduced, as you will not be able to graze as many cows and you will definitely experience livestock loss due to parasite load.
Maintaining control of your livestock is critical, both now and in a TEOTWAWKI environment. Frankly, keeping cows contained is pretty straightforward and can often be achieved with a single strand electric fence. Sheep and goats, on the other hand, are notorious for performing escape acts worthy of a Houdini award. If you’re fortunate enough to have a field fence (or woven wire) around your property, that will certainly suffice to keep your livestock in and most predators out. However, most woven wire is 4” x 6” or thereabouts, meaning that goats can easily stick their heads through, get caught by the horns, and become a coyote’s drive-by fast food meal. Of course, you can dehorn goats to eliminate this threat, but it doesn’t change the fact that field fencing is more expensive and not suitable to some terrain.
Goats and sheep can be confined with electric fencing, particularly with electrified netting, but this is not only laborious, it is difficult to maintain a high electric charge with a solar charge on the netting. Moreover, in some areas (such as ours), it is VERY difficult to get electric netting posts into the hard ground when summer rains are scarce. The result is many broken posts.
Another approach is to use six to eight strands of high tensile to confine goats and sheep, and this works if the fence is maintained, but the model we arrived at is much simpler and less expensive. After two seasons of fighting a losing battle with the sheep breaking out in a leader-follower system, we simply put them in a permanent herd with cows, goats, and donkeys. It took a short period of time, but the result was that the mixed clan became a single herd that relied on each other. Goats and sheep often played the role of an early warning system and retreated to the herd to present a formidable challenge to any would-be predator. As a result, while the sheep and goats sometimes venture a little ways off, it is only that…a little ways. At the sign of any trouble, they retreat to the herd with the larger cows. In the end, we found that the fencing wasn’t the solution; the herd mentality was. Getting the sheep and goats to be part of the cow herd solved this problem and is another reason we prefer rotational grazing to the leader-follower model.
Of course, an additional livestock protection tool is livestock guardian dogs (LGD’s), such as Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherds. Many homesteaders use this approach, and these indeed normally keep coyotes and other predators away. However, they should be used with caution in a TEOTWAWKI situation, as their greatest weapon (constant night barking) will surely call attention to your retreat. Now, this could also be desirable if you want the menacing growl of the LGD’s to deter invaders, but if that is your aim you may be better off with a German Shepherd or the like just inside your yard or house. To our way of thinking, we’d like to preserve operational security (OPSEC) by keeping animals protected AND quiet. To achieve this, we use donkeys as very effective guardian animals, instead of dogs. They are part of the herd, just like all the others, and our two donkeys often stand quietly facing opposite directions, ready to stomp any invader. Also, unlike LGD’s, donkeys are inexpensive (sometimes free on Craigslist) to purchase and FREE to feed!
As you may have noticed, we also think quite a bit about the best way to keep our herd quiet to preserve OPSEC. An obvious way is to not have noisy animals, such as roosters, as part of the mix. The same is true with bulls, who will call for the cows, unless you keep the bull as a permanent part of the herd, but this may increase your risk as you will need to be careful around bulls. Still, another consideration regarding noise level is how the animals are fed. One of the reasons we so love sheep, goats, donkeys and cows is that they can freely harvest their own feed and pay us back with protection, protein, and pelts. Simply match the species to the environment, and let them do their thing. With pigs, however, you may want or need to give them supplemental feed, unless you have A) a breed of pig that is nearly feral and B) lots of land for them to roam. If you do choose to feed them, I recommend hand feeding daily in a trough and not using a metal feeder with a flap lid. Those metal feeders produce a loud and unmistakable noise that will be heard far away as the pigs clank the lid up and down through the day and night, calling attention to your bacon on the hoof.
You’ll achieve these goals of protection and OPSEC by allowing the herd to bond together, protecting them with quiet but alert guardians, eliminating inherently noisy animals, and not feeding them in a noisy manner.
In closing, let me offer a couple of thoughts if you’re just starting out with grazing. Of course these are just ideas, as every situation, parcel, climate, and budget is different, but hopefully this will help get you started.
- Choose breeds that require little labor. For example, wool sheep require shearing, but hair sheep (such as Katahdin) do not. Also, ensure rocks are available for sheep and goats, so that you do not have to trim their hooves. In our case, we have never trimmed animal’s hooves, giving them the environment to do it naturally themselves.
- Choose breeds that fit the environment for your retreat, i.e. no Scottish Highland cows in south Texas.
- Choose parasite-resistant breeds.
- If you supplement with minerals, take care to choose low copper minerals for all, as sheep are more sensitive to copper than cows.
- Finally, in terms of stocking amounts, here are some recommendations for our neck of the woods, in the southeast U.S., though recommendations may be VERY different in your region:
- PER each three acres of pasture/forbs/browse – one cow, one calf, two goats, one sheep, ten chickens in movable henhouses (no roosters), two turkeys. So, for nine acres, we would have three cows, three calves, three sheep, six goats, 30 chickens, six turkeys.
- Wooded areas – six pigs per acre, moved monthly to new paddock, confined by solar-charged electric fence and fed by hand. For smaller herds of one or two pigs, try to locate adjacent to the garden for A) ease of feeding waste and B) monitoring.
I hope this has been a helpful introduction into multi-species livestock grazing. The aim is for you to not only survive a TEOTWAWKI scenario but to thrive. Producing an endless supply of organic fats and complete proteins will help you and your loved ones to achieve that goal.