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Flerds: Sheep and Cattle Grazing Together for Predator Control and Pasture Management

By   /  June 23, 2014  /  6 Comments

Multi-species grazing isn’t just about diversifying your operation and making good use of your pastures. It can also be a way to protect small ruminants from predation!

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Flerd:  

1.  A contraction of flock and herd.

2.  A mixed-species group of animals that consistently stays together under free-range conditions.

Losing animals to coyotes is no longer just a western problem.  These two maps from the National Wildlife Federation show how coyotes have expanded their range.  No matter where you live, even in urban areas, coyotes might be looking to snack on your small ruminant, or your cat or dog.

Losing animals to coyotes is no longer just a western problem. These two maps from the National Wildlife Federation show how coyotes have expanded their range. No matter where you live, even in urban areas, coyotes might be looking to snack on your small ruminant, or your cat or dog.

When the Jornada Experimental Range (JER) outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico expanded their range livestock research program to include sheep alongside cattle, they ran into a problem that anyone raising small ruminants has encountered:  predators, mostly coyotes, began picking animals off.  In fact, they lost 66% of the herd, dropping from 96 to 33 sheep in just one year.  As Dean Anderson wrote in his 1998 paper in the Journal of Arid Land Studies, this catapulted them into predator control research.  They ended up with a two-pronged approach that all but eliminated predation by coyotes.  The solution?  They got guard dogs to stay with the herd, and they taught the sheep to stay with the cows. The researchers started with two observations.  First, free-ranging sheep don’t normally stay with cattle in the same pasture.  In fact they interacted less than 6% of the time.  Second, they had seen how aggressive cattle could be towards dogs, especially when they felt threatened.  They figured that this aggression towards threatening dogs would translate to coyotes as well, and that if the sheep behaved as part of the cow herd, they’d have more protection.  And with that, they began to figure out the logistics for bonding sheep, goats and cattle.

Here's a 1987 JER picture showing bonding in progress.  The sheep do not bond to an individual cow but to the species in general.

Here’s a 1987 JER picture showing bonding in progress. The sheep do not bond to an individual cow but to the species in general.

Pen Bonding

They started by penning young lambs with cattle for 3o days.  All were fed together, though there was a creep to allow the lambs to escape to a safe place if necessary.  That’s about all it takes, for sheep to bond to cattle.  Further research has revealed that a good bond can be achieved in just 14 days, making it easier to get started flerding.

As all good researchers do, Dean Anderson and the folks at JER did a test to see if they were getting the results they hoped for.  It involved sending a trained herding dog to round up cattle and sheep while they filmed what happened.  The dog had a hard time with the control group because the sheep refused to move with the cattle, and ran off by themselves.  The job was much easier for the dog when it came to trying to move the flerd.  The sheep moved with the cattle, generally traveling in the midst of them, and the cattle did their job of occasionally turning on the dog to protect themselves and the sheep by extension.  It’s easy to see from Dean Anderson’s 1987 video of the test that flerds provide a lot of protection to sheep and goats.


Here’s the link for tablet folks.

The biggest issue/expense in creating a flerd is feeding the animals while they’re bonding.  Fortunately, you don’t have to train every member of your flock. By taking advantage of the flocking instinct of your small ruminants you can provide protection to unbounded animals.  Bonded animals, will stick with the cattle, and  those without a bond to cattle will stick with their flock mates.  Jornada researchers found that 12 bonded sheep controlled the movements of 12 non-bonded sheep.  You can see this at work in Dean Anderson’s video below.

Here’s the link for tablet folks.

At the Jornada Experimental Range, researchers use this herd behavior to introduce new lambs to the flerd.  Ewes are removed from the range to give birth in a corral where they remain for about 2 months while the lambs grow and gain strength.  Then the ewes and lambs go back on the range with their cattle flerd.  Though the lambs spend about 3 months with the cattle as part of the flerd, the bonding process doesn’t really seem to begin for them until after weaning.  It’s possible that they are simply too focuses on their bond with their mothers.  After weaning, as they continue to follow their mothers and the flerd, the bond begins to form.  After 217 days with the flerd, their bond with cattle is as strong as pen-bonded lambs that spent 34 days with heifers before joining the herd.

Flerd Benefits

Photo courtesy of Jornada Experimental Range

Photo courtesy of Jornada Experimental Range

There are management and pasture benefits to be gained by running sheep and cattle together.  Sheep-proof fences on the range are no longer required because the sheep will stay with the cattle.  Any fencing that will keep cattle in a particular pasture will keep the sheep with them, as long as their are no cattle in the adjacent pasture.  Sheep aren’t bonded to a particular cow or herd, they are bonded to all cattle, so will move to other cattle readily given the opportunity.  It’s also easier to find your small ruminants on large ranges, in dense brush or in fog or snow because the size of the cows makes the group easier to see.  Finally, cattle tend to range over a larger area when foraging than sheep and other small ruminants.  Sheep in flerds stick with the cattle, distributing foraging over a larger area than possible with just a flock.

It’s also important to note that flerding replaced other ways of trying to prevent coyotes from eating sheep.  Before flerding Anderson says “we relied on gunning, trapping, snares, electrified fences and guarding dogs.”  Post-flerding, they only used Turkish Akbash guard dogs.

Ready to Give Flerds a Shot?  Here Are Some Tips

1) Use sheep and goat breeds that exhibit flocking tendencies.  Researchers found that white face sheep breeds may bond better than black face breeds based on their flocking tendencies.  They also found that spanish goats could bond, but that over time, they became less bonded and wandered away from the herd more.

2) Younger animals bond better than older animals.  Researchers have done this with 1 day old lambs, and with yearling ewes with good results.  Jornada researchers were successful with lambs 45, 62, and 90 days old as well as with 18 month old ewes.

3) Any age docile cattle will do, but keep in mind that heifers eat less than a full  grown cow and will reduce the costs of the bonding process.  If you find a cow abusing lambs, remove it immediately because there’s no way to make lambs bond with their abusers.

4) Bond strength is measured by how far sheep stray from the cattle.  The stronger the bond, the  shorter the distance between sheep and cattle.  Bonds can be created in as little as 14 days.

5) Pens should be in quiet areas with little activity. The size of your pen will determine the ratio of cattle to sheep for the training. In smaller pens (52 square feet per animal), Jornado researchers used one cow per 3 lambs, and in larger pens, (188 square feet per animal) they used one cow per lamb.

6) Provide a creep area for the small ruminants as a place to escape if threatened, and to provide supplemental feed for growing lambs and kids.  Feed hay on either side of the creep for the first 24 to 72 hours so animals can see each other, yet lambs have some degree of safety as they get to know the larger cattle.

7) Consider putting bells on some cattle during training.  Lambs will learn that the sound is associated with where they ought to be, and help orient them in larger pastures.

Read More About It

Here are published papers on this subject:

Pro-active Livestock Management — Capitalizing on Animal Behavior
Dean Anderson, Journal of Arid Land Studies, 1998

Flocks and Herds or Flerds – It’s Your Choice
Dean Anderson, Grassroots: Newsletter of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa, June 2004, Vol 4 No 2

Pen confinement of yearling ewes with cows or heifers for 14 days to produce bonded sheep
E.L. Fredrickson, D.M. Anderson, R.E. Estell, K.M. Havstad, W.L. Shupe, M.D. Remmenga, Small Ruminant Research 40 (2001) 291-297

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

6 Comments

  1. Clint Thompson says:

    Hello Kathy, A few years ago I went to a Holistic Management meeting in Russel Manitoba. There was a guy there named Larsen who lives in Rolo Saskatchewan that has been doing this for a few years. He gave a very interesting presentation on cattle bonded sheep and based on our issues with closed borders due to BSE was trying to see just how few cows he could accomplish this with. I am not very interested in sheep but his holistic awareness on the how and why things were working since his change to this method made the presentation the most memorable. His original reason to attempt this was for predation protection but the many side benefits and observations he realized along the way were very interesting. Thanks for what you are doing here. Clint.

  2. Paul Nehring says:

    I have to wonder if you could accomplish the same thing just using good stockmanship skills, which emphasize teaching groups of livestock how to behave as a herd. It would save so much time and expense, and improve the management of any group of livestock.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Interesting thought. Do you think the training via stockmanship would take less than 14 days of confinement? I liked the idea of training just a few and then relying on animal behavior (flocking and learning from Mom) to create a flerd in just a couple weeks. But there are always a variety of solutions to the same problem.

  3. Kristin says:

    I do this on a small scale with my milk cows, heifers, steers & sheep. I run mostly hair sheep which are not a susceptible to copper toxicity as wool breeds. I also cull my sheep heavily based on their ability to do well in my conditions. I have pastures & land similar to what Bill Fosher describes and do keep them all in sheep netting, which may be more applicable to a lot of the readers here. The herd is moved daily. The combined herd grazed better than they do separately so I have more effective grazing available to them when they are together.

  4. Bill Fosher says:

    Kathy, I have to raise some issues with this. While I think that running sheep and cattle together has a lot of promise, there are some real challenges that will become apparent very quickly outside of a range environment.

    First off, running sheep without sheep proof fences will really only work in places where there’s no reason at all for the sheep to leave the paddock with the cattle: the feed’s not better, there’s no shade, there’s no slightly higher knoll where they might catch a breeze or have a better view of their surroundings, etc. Basically, where you’ve run a fence down the middle of the prairie or desert and it’s pretty much the same as far as the eye can see: places where the sheep could be grazed with herders rather than fence.

    If we did this in New England, with our small fields and closely-packed residential environment, there would be sheep in the neighbors’ yards every day, and the flerd would quickly become a nuisance and would be shut down.

    The second issue that presents itself when running sheep and cattle together is one of mineral supplementation. The levels of copper that cattle require are toxic to sheep. I have yet to see a system that deals with that issue. Most simply ignore it, and either use salt blocks that are intended for cattle (the hard composition of these blocks limits the intake of the sheep) or they use something like kelp or Redmon salt that doesn’t really have enough of any mineral to correct any imbalances, but is also not likely to cause toxicity. Both these approaches mean that sheep will not get adequate mineralization or will get too much copper.

    For those not familiar with copper toxicity in sheep, it causes basically no detectible symptoms as the copper builds in the liver. A stress event such as a sudden change in weather or a predator attack can cause the liver to release copper, leading to sudden death. And once the process starts, it’s irreversible.

    On the other hand, sheep require a great deal more selenium than do cattle. I am not sure whether the amounts of Se that sheep need would be harmful to cattle, but it is a very expensive mineral to supplement and I would not want a herd of cattle sucking down sheep mineral just to get the salt.

    Copper wouldn’t be an issue with goats and cattle running together, as both species have similar copper requirements and tolerances, but I think the same questions about selenium would remain.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      I agree with you, Bill. This isn’t a solution for everyone and we appreciate you pointing out mineral supplementation issues that folks should be cautious of.

      “What about Flerds?” is a question I’ve gotten quite often from my western neighbors and from folks at conferences in the west, so I thought I’d help them out with this interesting research that responds to their needs.

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