Thursday, July 12, 2007

Rotational Grazing

There are a lot of really fantastic resources out there for anyone who is interested in learning more about rotational grazing. I credit Small-Scale Livestock Farming by Carol Ekarius for my inspiration and education on the subject. I took these three photos hoping to illustrate how we do our rotational grazing here. Unfortunately, the green of the new lush area is about the same green as the used up portion the sheep are grazing.
Because I don't have any permanent fencing yet, I use electronet during the grazing season. As soon as I can push the posts into the ground (approximately April) I put the sheep out. I'm usually able to keep them on pasture until we put breeding groups together around Thanksgiving. Two rolls are interlocked to form a large area for my ewe flock (8-12 sheep) and one roll is used for the rams and their buddies (2-4 sheep). Then I move the fencing according to how fast the grass is growing. If it is growing fast, I move the fencing every day. If it is slow growing, I move the sheep every other day-or every three days. Sometimes-like in drought or early spring/late fall, I do keep the sheep in one area for a few days and suppliment with hay. But that gives the other areas of pasture time to recover. Every few days the sheep get that bit of fresh grass.
The top photo in this series shows an area (left side)that the sheep have been moved out of and then it has been recently mowed. The right-hand side of the fencing, with the black ewe, is showing some ground that the sheep have grazed. You can see I've thrown in some aspen branches which the sheep have stripped.
The second photo shows the area the sheep have grazed (left side) and the area they will be moved into (right side). Because this forage is up to my chin in height, we use a regular lawn mower to mow a path for the fencing. This saves us a lot of time and makes a nice trail for the sheep. Plus, it almost completely eliminates the chance of grass shorting out the fence. We set the mower height to HIGH so it does not damage the growth.
The last photo shows the sheep in the used up pasture (front) with the new pasture behind the fence in the background. It's not clear, but the growth is quite a bit higher than the fencing itself. We can't even see the sheep in there until they've eaten it down a bit. (Disclaimer: this field was re-seeded last year. Not all of our grazing areas are this lush or tall.)
One of the best parts of rotational grazing: the sheep KNOW the routine. They stand expectantly along the fence waiting for that first access to the new ground. I can tell they are happy. They also tell me when it is time to move them. After they've removed about 50% of the forage they will start to baa when I come out of the house. Yes, they have plenty left to eat, but they know I move them frequently so they expect more.
Moving fence every day is a big commitment of time and energy. Whether we like it or not, it has to be done; even when it is pouring rain, when the mosquitos are fierce, or when we have invitations to do other things. It just has to be worked into our schedule. In fact, I would say that moving the fence dominates our summer schedule. We plan around it.
We are looking forward to installing some permanent fencing soon. The field in the above photos will be our first project. It will be so nice to be able to put the sheep in there and not have to move them quite as much. We might even be able to take a family trip with our extra time! But even so, after three years of moving electronet for grazing, I've witnessed too many benefits to give it up completely. So far I've been able to manage internal parasites in the flock with diatomacious earth and garlic/apple cider vinegar. I do use a commercial wormer occasionally, but not very often. And the sheep just love to get on an area that is brand new. I think their minds benefit from the stimulation of having new territory to explore frequently. It also breaks some of pasture chores into smaller bits: clearing the whole farm of dangerous plants would be daunting, but I can easily inspect the next paddock and pull up the few that might be growing there in just a couple of minutes. (I think a milkweed plant is shown in the second photo forground for example. Since I love Monarch butterflies, this method allows the plant and the sheep to live side by side for all but the one or two days the sheep move through. Yes, we do inspect the plants and transfer the caterpillars to other milkweed plants in the area-that is one of the boys' responsibilities.)
It's a lot of work. Plain and simple. I would love nothing better than to never leave the farm and let the flock management be my primary focus. Clancy and my sons have other priorities. Hence the need for some permanent fencing. So now my goal is to blend the idea of larger permanent pastures with the ideals of fast-paced flock movement. Little by little...I'll figure it out.

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