Choose Your Ruminant Depending On What Your Pastures Offer

Animals do the hard work of improving pastures and soil health, so choose the right ruminants for the land and native growth you already have.

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: Rui Serra Maia/Shutterstock

Cows, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens … when we first step onto our new homestead, chances are we want to get them all right away. Animals bring so much to whatever homestead venture we have in mind (meat, eggs, milk, companionship). The impulse is to choose a ruminant breed and unleash animals on those open pastures! 

Animals certainly add to our pleasures and comforts. But bringing animals (and especially ruminant breeds) on the land can also be the first step to converting unused pastures into a working, productive homestead. Grazing, scratching and manuring are free labor we can use to convert less-than-perfect land into a homestead gem!

Choosing the Right Stock

Although livestock may be our partners in good land alterations, they can also easily be the means of degrading land. Without proper management, horses can graze a pasture down to dirt. Pigs can plow it up so it washes away in the next rain.

Even chickens can do real damage. Look at the moonscape around the chicken house may!

Knowing how to select the right animals for your land, and how to put them to work for good, not damage, is a huge benefit to the new—or even the experienced—homesteader.

And partnering with animals is the best possible tool for land improvement. In fact, it’s how nature does it.

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Livestock allow you to make natural modifications to the existing ecosystem without the violence, waste and expense of heavy machinery and toxic chemicals. Animals even leave deposits of fertility as they work. They don’t charge for their services and work full-time, even when we’re not there. 

As soon as we bring a ruminant onto the farm, the animal can begin cycling energy (sunlight collected and converted by plants in pastures) to fuel natural cycles of fertility and food generation. So if we start out with the right animal (under proper management), improvements happen even when our own responsibilities keep us elsewhere.

ruminant pastures ruminants pasture
Shawn And Beth Dougherty

Pasture Perfect

There are a lot of factors that may go into choosing what breed and species of animal you want to partner with on your homestead. But before you make any decisions, there are two questions that are essential.

  • What type of plants are growing here, and who eats that? 
  • What kind of animal suits the topography of my land (degree of slope, soil condition)? 

Choosing the right species will depend on the answers to these questions.

Read more: Pasture permaculture is a matter of good grazing.

What Grows There?

You don’t need a degree in plant science to answer this one. You’re not asking for genus and species, but roughly, what is it: grass, weeds, briars, brush?

We’re talking about more or less open ground here. Dense woods don’t lend themselves to pasturage.

Pretty much all short or scrubby growth is grazable. You may think it looks like junk. But whether your predominant plant communities are lovely grass-and-clover pasture, dense weeds, brush or thorny briars, there’s a ruminant that calls that dinner.

Why Not Planted Pasture?

You may ask yourself: Why not just spray the weedy native stuff with glyphosate (the chemical name for the broad spectrum herbicide Roundup) and reseed our pastures with good forage species good for a ruminant? The agricultural extension office for your county will be happy to send out a specialist to design a whole new pasture community for you, tailor-made for whatever species of livestock you would like to raise.

If the ruminant can feed, why stick with native pastures at all?

The Value of Natives

Well, first there’s the expense of spraying and reseeding, and the (very real) chance that the seeds you plant won’t perform as you anticipate. Then there’s the question of environmental appropriateness. Remember, the plants on your homestead are already self-selected for your piece of land. 

For some time now, they’ve grown there successfully, performing environmental services such as solar-energy capture and conversion, rainfall harvest and storage, and erosion control. They are volunteers whose willingness to be there, and ability to get along, is already proven.

They’re a winning team. Sometimes it’s a good idea to stick with what you’ve got!

Diverse Community

In addition to this, your native and naturalized pasture plants represent a very diverse community. A large number of species means a large array of environmental services. When you have a really hot, dry year, this pasture will have seen that before. A host of plants will shift into high gear when things are hot and dry.

When you experience low temperatures and excessive rainfall, you’ll already have multiple plant families that take over whenever conditions are cool and wet. Blight might visit one significant pasture plant, but with many other species represented, other members of the community will fill in the gap.

Variety is a good thing!

Medicinal Value

We aren’t even going into the matter of therapeutic plants, that pharmacopoeia of medicinals that nature already provides. Let’s just say the broader the spectrum of plant species available, the more options your animals will have to keep their health optimal.

Many “toxic” pasture species have long been known to possess anthelmintic (gut-worm fighting) and antibiotic properties. Toxic forages can be the pasture’s medicine chest!

And the micronutrients available from various nonforage species allow pasture-wise grazing animals to balance their health without expensive supplements or medications.

Got Brush?

So, what is growing out there? If it’s briars, brush and prickles, chances are that goats will be your best friends. Sheep are also partial to prickly foods. But goats will outperform all other ruminants when it comes to spiky, woody forages. 

Things such as blackberry and raspberry cane, autumn olive, locust and multiflora rose are choice delicacies for the browsing goat. These animals will stand on hind legs or even climb trees to reach a spiky sprig.

Repeated browsing of these plants will control or eliminate them. This makes goats great tools for opening up land for other uses. They’re also cheaper than a bulldozer, and they spread manure at the same time!

ruminant pastures ruminants pasture
Beth Kruprzak/Bargar Farm

Wild & Weedy

We all know a neglected pasture that has become overgrown with weeds. In the autumn, these are the fields that wave with goldenrod and ragweed, purple ironweed and fluffs of seeding Canada thistle.

While it may not look beautiful to us, to sheep this looks like haute cuisine! 

Forbs—broadleaved herbaceous plants, what we usually call weeds—are the favorite food of the ovine family. Sheep will move over this kind of pasture, stripping tall stems of their leaves and letting sunlight down to ground level. There, it can stimulate the growth of grass plants, moving your pasture toward a more nutritious grass-and-legume (clover family) mix.

Fattening animals while mowing weeds is a win-win proposition.

Sheep, like goats, can also do a good job on thorny plants. If you have a briar problem and goats turn out to be too difficult for you to keep inside a fence, sheep may be the answer.

Better adapted than goats to grazing (ground-level feeding) in addition to browsing (shoulder-level and higher foraging), sheep make good candidates for a mixed pasture. As well as being easier to confine than are their caprine cousins, sheep are generally tougher, too—less prone to parasites and disease and far less weather-sensitive. 

Good Pasture 

What about the pasture that is mostly grass or grass and weeds? Cows are probably the answer here. These big producers of beef and milk have a grazing style that especially benefits a grass pasture. 

What they don’t eat, they’ll trample, leaving all that valuable organic matter to break down and add fertility to the soil. With good management, every time your ruminant grazes your pasture, the soil grows deeper and more fertile. The plant community gets denser and more diverse, and the animal food more nutritious.

Read more: These are the best (and worst) pasture mates for goats.


It’s not enough just to know what kind of animal our land is making food for. We also need to make sure that the food is accessible, without damage to the land or the animal.

This is the question of topography, determined by the following questions:

  • How steep is your land, and what sort of materials is it made from?
  • Will it be difficult for heavy animals to access?
  • Is the soil easily compressed or rutted?
  • Is it stony or heavy with clay? Wet or sandy?

The answers to these questions will determine the size and species of animal best suited to your land.

Stony land, for example, may be difficult for large animals such as cows to access. But it won’t place any obstacle in the way of goats or sheep. Steep hills may be torn up by the hooves of heavy cows but tolerant of their smaller, lighter cousins. 

Low-lying land that holds a lot of water is apt to suffer from pugging (compaction and compression) when grazed with bovines. Here, again, sheep or goats might be better choices.

In general, though, the heavy impact of cattle can be a tremendous benefit, chipping hard soil surfaces, crushing tough plant fibers, and driving seeds into the ground. Most land is tolerant of a wide range of impacts. But it’s important to take consideration for your soil.

Also: Not all cows are big! Smaller breeds such as Dexters and old-genetic Jerseys (with a mature weight about half that of commercial beef and dairy breeds) may be well suited to steep or wet areas that would be inappropriate for their larger kin.

Often these unimproved breeds are better suited to a natural diet of grass and forbs anyway, unlike their generally grain-fed cousins.

ruminant pastures ruminants pasture
Linas T/Shutterstock

Good Management

Good grazing is managed grazing. After all, you’re in the business of growing grass, as well as animals. You need to look out for your pasture’s welfare, too!

The science of grazing a ruminant on pastures does make a fascinating study. But you don’t need a lot of biology to begin practicing good pasture management. You can spend a lifetime learning, but a few principles can get you started right away:

Small Paddocks

Often, they should be much smaller than you would think, perhaps as small as your bedroom.

Short Duration

Ideally, there should be no more than a day or two between moves.

Heavy Impact

Most of the time, you want to see a real difference before and after grazing.

Long Rest & Complete Recovery

Plants in your pastures are just as important as your ruminant breeds!

You’ll often see this called mob or intensive grazing. Pulsed, observational grazing makes sure plants aren’t overgrazed and are given time to fully recover before animals can come back for another bite. 

Small paddocks mean less selective grazing (because there’s less forage to choose from) and more time before animals return to this paddock (more—because smaller—paddocks equals more days in a rotation).

The selective and overfrequent grazing that happens when we just turn animals loose on the whole pasture, on the other hand, will disadvantage favored forage species and can even kill them off. 

You learn good grazing by doing it. Frequent moves will keep impacts positive. And the attention and interest of the farmer supplies instruction.

While it’s good to be prepared when you add any new species to the farm personnel, don’t put it off needlessly! Water, minimal shelter and a fence or tether are all you really need.

Real improvements—building soil, renewing soil fertility, increasing pasture density and complexity—are just waiting to happen, without the purchase of a single sack of feed. Just get your choice of ruminant and unlock the solar power already pouring down on your farm pastures. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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