A Plan for Grazing
One of my favorite things about farming is watching the sheep eat. They are truly giddy when they are moved to a fresh section of pasture, literally running around to different sections of the paddock trying to find the best of the best grass. The drought this fall was frustrating because the fescue never became lush and the pastures took almost no time at all to reach a point that resembled mid-winter. We were feeding hay by early November (versus last year we held off on hay until January!)
But even before the drought, I was disappointed in the quality of our pastures. Growth seemed sparse and slow at times despite a wet spring, and weeds were an issue in some areas. It was odd to me that areas of the pasture that were in good shape last year didn’t look great this year. I did some liming and fertilizing, but decided I needed to do some deeper research to have a better plan going forward.
There are a lot of variables and many different ideas and methodologies out there when it comes to pastures and grazing, but for our farm – a small farm where we need to optimize what we have – I think the problem came down to how we were grazing our pastures. We used rotational grazing, moving the sheep to a new paddock once the current one looked absent of anything easily edible. I thought this had to be better than “conventional” grazing, where a farmer just opens the whole field up to the herd. What my research told me was that in reality, what we were doing was no better than the conventional methods – possibly even worse for the quality of the pasture.
When sheep graze, they eat the tops of the good stuff first, sample and subsequently skip the bad stuff (weeds), and go back to finish off the good stuff completely. Over time, and not even a long amount of time, this optimizes conditions for the weeds and leaves the good stuff struggling.
Going forward, our plan for grazing is changing. Grazing areas will be smaller so that what the sheep eat will be more uniform, with their self-made fertilizer distributing more evenly. The biggest change will be the grazing time – only the top 1/3 to maximum ½ of the grasses should be eaten. This should shorten the recovery time of the grass and also require fewer nutrients from the soil, gradually building soil health.
What will also increase, as a result of smaller paddocks, is the overall recovery time available to each paddock. Grasses will only be grazed when they are ready, not when they are just out of the recovery stage.
There are some other things we will try too (future blog post), but my hopes are that this change in methodology will help the pasture health to improve, and therefore lead to more giddy times for the sheep!