First off, let me assure you I do not hate horses. In fact, this article is not really about horses at all. It is about soil and grass. Horses, though, can really improve grass and soil even though the way they are currently managed does the opposite. It’s just that when horses are grazed in a group with cattle, sheep, and hogs (what I call a MOB), they have some peculiarities as does each species I have dealt with.
There appears to be a hierarchy of species when they are combined. Saddle horses tend to have an air of aristocracy above all others. It’s not even all horses; just saddle horses. For some reason, being trained changes a horse’s perception of itself because I have not seen this behavior when grazing bucking horses.
Cattle, on the other hand, are pretty easy going and are content with good grass and clean water. They do not, however, appreciate pushy sheep. Yes sheep are pushy! They butt to the front of the line and don’t observe proper social etiquette. For some reason sheep don’t take the hint when a cow bunts them out of the way. Hogs can be that way as well, but are actually the social butterflies of the MOB. They don’t really care who they hang out with as long as there is good grass to eat. Side note: turkeys have not fared well grazing with larger animals. The economic loss from irate cows and curious hogs made me abandon adding them to the MOB quickly! Maybe someone else has been successful, but it wasn’t me.
When putting a multi-species MOB together, the first two weeks is when you see these behaviors amplified. The saddle horses will do things like block a gate after the MOB has been nicely flowing for a quarter mile. As a herder, you will be in the back wondering why the whole MOB has stopped. You glance up to see your favorite saddle horse turned sideways in the gate blocking any animal from passing. It becomes your job to ride to the gate and chase that horse through the gate with a stick, rock, or something hard to get your point across. Like I said, horses are jerks! Maybe I am being a bit too hard on horses because I have had a couple bulls do the very same thing.
For the MOB to work effectively, it requires a strong leader. YOU must become that leader. If there are bunch quitters you must harass them and teach them the MOB is their safe place. It doesn’t matter what species or what age. Each animal must know they are safe as long as they stay within the MOB. If an animal is blocking a gate you as the leader must let that animal know it is unacceptable behavior. If a cow keeps bunting sheep away from the water you must get after that cow. It may be difficult if the horse blocking the gate is a pet to you. Out in the MOB there are no pets, only equal members of the MOB. So suck it up and be a strong leader! (Here’s the technique I use to teach my animals that “Happiness is Being in the Herd.”)
After the initial training phase is over, you will see amazing things happen within the MOB. The animals learn they are part of one unit. It doesn’t matter what species they are. You can still sort off the animals you want, however, if you happen to bring in only the cattle or only the sheep, you may turn around to find that the rest of the MOB is following. Even the horses!
Benefits of Making a MOB
Before I proceed, let me share a few pretty cool moments I have witnessed grazing multiple species as a MOB:
• I was bringing in a MOB of 300+ sheep, 30 hogs, 20 horses, and 180 cattle (steers, dry cows, and bulls) and the group was spread out about ¼ mile down a causeway. At the end of the causeway was a steel gate leading into another pasture. There was a water trough just inside the gate. Several horses had to wait at the gate because numerous cattle stopped to drink. The sheep kept going through the gate into the pasture. At one point, a horse picked up its hind leg to let some sheep pass under. Maybe horses aren’t always jerks!
• As I was sorting off a bull on foot, the bull carefully walked through the ruminating MOB without stepping on a single sheep, lamb, or hog.
• Many afternoons I’ve ridden out to the MOB to find the whole group lounging around together, ruminating. Each time I am filled with awe because to me, it is the epitome of ‘Peace in the Valley’.
• When coyotes are present, sheep will be move to the center of the MOB as evening approaches. It then becomes very difficult to sort off some butcher lambs if you happen to forget until after supper.
• Once the animals become an actual MOB, the ewes and cows will birth within the MOB and not off in a corner of the paddock or in the trees. Personally, I do not have horses in the MOB until after the first cycle of calving/lambing. Once again, horses can be jerks and will sometimes go stampeding through the group to the detriment of the newborns.
Infrastructure for a MOB
Three strands of high tensile wire charged with a good energizer seems to work quite well to keep the hogs and sheep from creep grazing into the next paddock. My preference is at least 12 joules. I have only grazed finishing hogs in this mix so I’m not sure how well this will work with weaners less than 150lbs. Also, hogs require a ring in the router to prevent damage to the grass. It is something a fellow who grew up in Scandinavia taught me and it is very simple and effective.
Your water trough should be low and narrow with a step if possible. This will allow all classes of animals to easily water with little risk of getting trapped in the trough. Hogs don’t seem to make a mess because there are animals coming to drink continually throughout the day so they can’t wallow beside the trough. To supply the trough, I like to use above ground pipelines with a flow rate of at least 10 imperial gallons per minute. This ensures there is always water in the trough and animals don’t have to stand and wait to drink. It alleviates the congestion that leads to pushing and shoving. Interestingly there will often be two or three species drinking side by side.
In the next installment, I will discuss moving the MOB. Just so you know ahead of time, the techniques used to move a multi-species group are the same skills used to move a single species group. Who woulda’ thought!