Written by: Nicole Kitchener

Cross-grazing horses with other species is an age-old concept, find out how you can use it to your advantage.

Thumbnail for Horses and Sheep and Cows….Oh My!

Ellen Cameron photo

You’re gazing upon a pastoral scene of horses and ponies grazing. When you look closer, however, you realize the ponies are sheep and the horse you thought was a Paint? Well, it’s a Holstein cow.

Allowing different species of livestock to share the same land area, whether together or separately within the same grazing season is called cross- or mixed-grazing or multi-species grazing. Pasture cohabitation is an ancient farming concept that’s regaining popularity, in part, because people are seeking ways to keep their horses and properties in environmentally sustainable ways. It can be advantageous for the horses, the other animals and the human tending the pasture. The practice just requires a basic knowledge of grazing behaviours and some management.

As a starting point, it’s helpful to know how horses graze. They’re selective or spot grazers, meaning they pick and choose the youngest and most tender grasses and legumes (i.e. alfalfa and clover.) They tend to ignore taller grasses and chew very close to the ground, eating down certain areas until nearly bare, leaving rough patches of longer, less-palatable forage. They also avoid eating in areas that are soiled by their manure, which, in effect, is nature’s parasite burden reduction strategy.

These particular grazing habits evolved in pre-domesticated horses and continue in wild horses today. But most domesticated horses live very differently from their ancestors, having to contend with human-defined confinement in pastures and paddocks – a far cry from wide ranging expanses. Yet, their natural grazing instincts remain intact. What can result is a ‘horse-killed’ pasture with poor-quality grasses, weed proliferation, soil erosion and parasite infestation. Enter the other beasts.

Pasture & Parasite Management Allowing other animals to graze on the same land as horses can improve pasture health and optimize its use.

Cross-grazing can occur with the animals in the pasture simultaneously or using a rotational management system, sometimes called the leader/follower method, in which horses are grazed on a particular patch of pasture to enjoy the choice grazing and then followed by the other livestock who ‘clean up.’

Not all animals eat the same plants within a pasture and will nibble to different heights.

Cattle, for example, are able to digest older, stemmier grasses and plants better than horses. They’re also only able to snip off grass that’s two inches or more because they don’t have upper front teeth. Instead, they tear at plants using their tongue.

Small ruminants like sheep and goats are also good pasture cohabitants because they eat the equine leftovers such as taller plants and weeds. Sheep, for instance, are grazers and enjoy forbs (broad-leaf plants with fleshy stems), while goats are considered browsers. This means they like to eat browse – the leaves, twigs and young shoots of woody-stemmed plants such as trees, shrubs and vines. They prefer to graze with their heads up, using their unique upper lip to remove leaves and strip bark.

Jane Czank of Cardigan, PEI, is a horse owner and a fan of goats. Her two species live contentedly together.

“I definitely let them graze with the horses,” said Czank. “I haven’t met a horse that didn’t tolerate them. They have no problem with her sharing the hay pile with them.”

“In fact, my gelding and my small goat, Cricket, get along great. I’ve never seen the horses put the run to her. Although they are no replacement for another horse, they’re great company.”

Other animals can be suitable grazing mates too. Consider alpacas, llamas and even chickens.

Letting these other critters eat off the plants horses don’t appreciate not only eliminates unwanted species (decreasing the need for mowing and herbicide application), but it also increases the growth of grasses and legumes that are horse-palatable and increases plant resistance to the impacts of grazing and other sources of pasture stress such as drought.

Cross-grazing is also a natural means of controlling worms in horses and the other animals.

When parasite eggs that are deposited on the pasture in the manure hatch, the larvae that end up on the ground and grass are consumed during grazing. The worm’s life cycle then continues inside the animal.

Most parasites, however, are host specific, which means they’re only able to complete their life cycle in a single species – so, parasites that burden other species do not affect horses and vice versa. Plus, like horses, most animals don’t like grazing around their own manure, but have no problem with poop from their fellow barnyard friends. Again, this maximizes grazing and promotes parasite prevention.

When Cohabitation Goes Awry Throwing all manner of beasts in a pasture together with horses doesn’t necessarily mean peace and harmony.

Horses tend to be dominant over other animals, particularly cattle, sometimes giving chase or engaging in rough play. For this reason, the non-equines should have a place they can escape from the horses, particularly during feeding time when horses can become quite aggressive. This might require new handling facilities or buildings.

Fencing is another consideration, as it might not be suitable for all livestock. Barbed-wire, which is often used to contain cattle, is not appropriate for horses; a post-and-board fence might be fine for horses, but a wily goat could wiggle under or between the slats.

Czank, for example, finds even electric fencing doesn’t always contain her goats. “The downfall is that they’re very agile and will jump through strands of hot wire, so it’s hard to keep them in,” she said. “Mine rarely travel far though, as long as there is good grazing around.”

Adding another animal to the mix can also result in increased labour and a commitment to the husbandry of that particular species.

“I had a ewe until last summer,” said Czank. “She was very loud and her poop was large and messy. And you have to shear them once a year.”

People considering cross-grazing might be concerned about disease transmission. Like parasites, most diseases are host-specific and not contagious amongst different species.

Among the few exceptions: skin diseases such as ringworm and rain rot; the bacterial infections salmonellosis, brucellosis and leptospirosis (the latter often implicated in recurrent uveitis or moonblindness); vesicular stomatitis (from cattle and swine), pigeon fever (from goats and sheep), anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease and rabies.

The majority of these diseases are very rare. As is generally the case, keeping the animals well-groomed, providing clean water sources, avoiding stressors and vaccinating where appropriate will go a long way to maintaining health all round. Talk to your veterinarian about concerns you may have about transmittable disease before mixing your horses with other animals.

If you do decide to try cross-grazing, introduce the different species slowly over short periods of time, perhaps giving them time to peer, sniff and spook from adjoining paddocks. Once they’re together in the field, watch carefully for signs of bullying or other problems, but, otherwise, enjoy your multispecies pastoral pasture scene.