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Multi-species rotational grazing system is a success

By Doug Rich


DIVERSITY—Forage diversity is important on the Hoppings’ farm since the cattle and the hair sheep generally eat different plants. (Photo courtesy of Joe Hopping.)

The Komondor guard dog comes over to check us out, then heads back to the flock of hair sheep grazing nearby. In the fall and winter the sheep have the pasture all to themselves, but in the spring and summer they share the forage with stocker cattle, moving through the pasture together in a rotational pattern.

Joe Hopping and his brother, Hoss, have been using multi-species grazing for the last four years on their southeastern Oklahoma farm. Running a flock of hair sheep with cattle has been very successful for them.

"Running cattle with them is so much of an advantage and they utilize so much more," Joe Hopping said. "We are tremendous believers in multi-species grazing."

Hoss Hopping said residual grass is important for their multi-species grazing system.

"Any time you have a real high stock density, you better have a tremendous amount of forage when you go back into a paddock," Hopping said.

At one time Hopping said they really grazed the paddocks hard, even with a long recovery period. Over time they discovered that the more grass they leave in a paddock the quicker it comes back. Joe Hopping said it also increases average daily gain.

Residual grass means all the animals have plenty to eat, and it keeps them from looking for greener pastures. At first Hopping said a three-wire electric fence could not keep the sheep confined. Now a single electric wire keeps the sheep and cattle at home.

"When everything has plenty to eat they don't want to leave," Hopping said.

A long recovery period for each paddock is part of their system. This gives the paddocks time to grow and increases the diversity of forage. Diversity is important in this system since the sheep and cattle generally eat different plants.

There is some overlap but cattle prefer grass, sheep prefer weeds, and goats prefer to graze brush. Hopping said hair sheep eat more like a deer, but they will graze more than you might think. He also pointed out that they don't like every kind of weed.

Looking out at the tall grass in the paddock, Hoss Hopping said even with a stock dog he could not get the sheep to go into that grass. Once they were out there the sheep would run the middle of it to the short grass on the other side. Hopping said it is a predator-prey response. The sheep won't go into anything that is above eye level and is thick.

Turn the cattle in and they will go through the tall grass, knock some down and create paths that give line of sight for the sheep.

"Running cattle with them is so much of an advantage and they utilize so much more," Hopping said.

The Hopping brothers have run yearling cattle as well as cows and calves with the sheep, but now they use primarily locally purchased stocker calves. The only time they will not turn cattle in with the sheep is when the ewes are lambing from April 20 to June. Joe Hopping said they turn the cattle in with the sheep about two weeks after the last lamb is born.

"About the time the smallest lamb is able to travel is when we throw them together," Hoss Hopping said.

At first there was some concern that the cattle would step on the sheep, but that has not been a problem. Joe Hopping said he would not recommend feeding them together, however. The guard dogs seem to accept the cattle better when they are in the same pasture than when they are across the fence in another paddock.

Hopping said they started raising sheep in 1998 and they have always had hair sheep rather than wool breeds. After doing some research they believe hair sheep fit their climate, their forage, and their management style the best. Joe Hopping said the hair breeds are better mothers and handle the weather without shelter.

"We have never seen the sheep in any situation where they did not take the weather as well as the cattle," Hoss Hopping said. "There might be a natural windbreak in some paddocks but no sheds for cover."

"The first three years we had sheep we thought we were geniuses," Hopping said. "We just did not have any problems. Then all of a sudden we had all kinds of parasite problems."

Three years is about how long it takes for a parasite problem to build up on grass pastures. After contacting some noted sheep experts the Hopping brothers decided to bring in some Florida Native sheep. This breed was originally brought to Florida by the Spanish explorers. Several hundred years of natural selection developed hair type sheep breed with excellent feet and parasite resistance.

Joe Hopping said they culled their flock down to best 60 ewes and then turned in the Florida Native sheep. Today their ewes are about half Katahdin, a quarter Dorper, and a quarter Florida Native. Hopping said they maintain a closed herd of around 600 ewes and raise their own replacements.

"You need to maintain a flock of at least 500 head to stay away from inbreeding problems if you are raising your own replacement," Hopping said.

The Hopping brothers said they don't trim feet, lamb out in the open on grass, and they have not done a mass vaccination of the flock in over four years.

Sheep are wintered on the grass and given a little protein. Hopping said if the sheep can find anything green at all they would make it.

About this time their guard dog made a sweep around the perimeter of the flock and checked us out again. Hoss Hopping said they have tried everything including llamas and donkeys and every breed of dog to protect their flock from predators. Komondor dogs have been the best. They had tremendous coyote problems at one time but the Komondor guard dogs cured that problem.

Joe and Hoss Hopping started out with cattle, switched to sheep, and now they have combined the two species. They said the key has been to center the grazing plan on which class of animal needs the most nutrition at that time.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by email at richhpj@aol.com.

Date: 1/14/2013



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