There can be advantages to using several species (cattle, sheep, goats) to utilize certain pastures. In the past 30 years, there has been a lot of research on the use of sheep and goats to control noxious weeds and brush without chemicals. Bret Olson, department of range, Montana State University says sheep are often utilized to reduce stands of leafy spurge, spotted knapweed and other noxious weeds.
“Dave Mannix and his brothers own a large ranch in western Montana, with 1,400 head of cows. They had a major problem with spotted knapweed, and about 15 years ago brought in a band of sheep to graze the knapweed before cows went on those pastures,” says Olson.
This type of weed control on ranches was supported for seven years by a grant through the Montana Sheep Institute that helped subsidize expenses for sheep producers to bring in a band for the summer. “This part of Montana gets a lot of snow so they looked at just running yearlings (ewe lambs) for the summer,” says Olson.
A few sheep operators have a traveling sheep enterprise and graze weeds from Arizona to Montana on a seasonal basis, though goats can be a better fit for controlling certain weeds. “Another alternative is bringing in someone else’s sheep for the summer,” says Olson.
In February 2010 the Society for Range Management held a symposium on targeted grazing. “Most of the speakers were people bringing sheep or goats to control certain types of weeds or to reduce brush or fuels (to reduce fire danger),” he says. There is growing interest in using sheep or goats on cattle pastures for weed and brush control and in parks and other ungrazed areas to reduce fire danger.
“When I was involved with the Mannix ranch they had a field day one summer. I was one of the speakers and talked about the feasibility of grazing sheep with cows. One problem is wolves and grizzly bears in that area of Montana as well as coyotes, which can be a challenge for raising sheep. There was research in New Mexico years ago, bonding sheep to cows, with the idea that the cows would help deter predators. This can work for coyotes, but domestic cows can’t take on a pack of wolves,” Olson says.
The problem with using guard dogs for the sheep is that they will take on a cow, so it doesn’t work to run sheep and cattle together if guard dogs are used for the sheep. There would be confrontations because cows with young calves would also attack a dog.
“Aside from the predator issue, there are many benefits of multispecies grazing. All the plants are grazed at the same time, rather than having the grasses grazed by the cows in mid-June and then the sheep in early July. An advantage of having them graze together is that you have a herder with the sheep, and the herder can also take the cows where you want them — and monitor all the grazing animals. This could reduce riparian issues, etc. Running cows and sheep together makes a lot of sense, especially if you have the herder and are not in wolf and grizzly country,” he says.
“I was at a range meeting in 2017 on John and Nina Baucus’ sheep ranch 16 miles north of Helena. They are very innovative ranchers and have a band of sheep. They truck the ewes and lambs for summer grazing to control weeds on another ranch, then trailed them back home,” says Olson.
“Traveling sheep bands could also work with a cooperative arrangement — with five or six ranchers getting together and buying a sheep operation. This could spread the cost, to graze sheep on several ranches and mix the timing, so not everyone’s grass is being grazed at the same time. This idea originally came from North Dakota, where they also have a lot of leafy spurge,” he says.