Grazing Intensifies

Rain, heat, alfalfa just prior to bloom - our pastures are at their most lush and potent stage right now.

The sheep tend to graze from the top of the plant down, or at least mine do. I’m guessing the top of the plant is the most lush, sweet and palatable. With plants like alfalfa and clover this top plant portion is highly desirable and since both of these plants grow tall in prime conditions they are also easily accessibly to grazing animals. In our pasture right now the ewes hardly have to put their heads down to eat it.

When the sheep move into a new paddock, they sweep it, doing a rather rapid migratory graze, nibbling the top of the plants as they go and being quite selective in choosing alfalfa. If they have a lot of space to graze in, it is a ‘too much of a good thing’ scenario. To manage it we are limiting the grazing space and moving animals frequently. With all animals eating on less space more robust grazing will occur while lessening the risk of any one animal being able to overeat on alfalfa.

It is a matter of finding a balance between grazing for the grass and keeping livestock out of trouble. Moving frequently keeps the animals from overgrazing too severely while still keeping them on the prime quality grass. We want them to maintain a belly full of the best total grazing. We don’t want them forced to eat plants too far down and then moved onto full grown lush stuff again. An even level of grazing and satisfied animals is what we’re after. Simple to write, a little more challenging in practice.

The sheep are currently on a quarter of land (160 acres) that is permanently cross fenced into roughly four, 40 acre paddocks. Within the 40 acre paddocks we are using Electranetting to further subdivide into smaller paddocks. In this manner sheep will eventually graze the entire quarter and then move onto the next.

The division of paddocks made with the electranet are not done according to specific size. Rather we take a best guess at how much space/feed we’ll need and fence according to lay of the land. We’re not after each paddock being ten acres but that each paddock suffice for a days grazing. Some may be too small, some to large; we’ll figure it out as we go.

On the 40 acre paddock we are grazing right now there is a large wetland running through it, plus two more smaller ones. This has provided a great way to subdivide while moving around the water bodies and saves on the netting required for each individual grazing cell. It allows us to set up grazing cells in advance. In the next 40 acre paddock we will be moving to, there is no water bodies or land features to do this with so we will graze in strips across the paddock. This will mean more netting for each cell and greatly reduce how far ahead we can set up.

Black lines indicate fence boundaries
This is a photo from this morning. I’ve marked where the netting runs on the left and right and the perimeter fence along the back. The water completes the front fence boundary.  The left and right side of netting comes down to the wetland and far enough into the water the ewes will not venture around it. We are not electrifying the netting. I’m waiting for the ewes to finish a mornings graze and for the mornings moisture to evaporate before moving them (moving to the left).

Each move requires a round up of lambs to make sure everyone gets across. Young lambs are oblivious to the idea of keeping up with the ewes but the upside is that we are moving such a short distance it’s not terribly difficult to get them there (a stock dog helps :) and this morning Cajun is along for the work). After all the animals are across the water bus and mineral is moved. After the move the netting from the paddock previous to the one just grazed is taken down and set up where needed next. Take a break and repeat in twelve or twenty four hours.

In the next photo the flock has been moved. The little arm of water travels to the left and pinches the flock off at the edge of the photo, where there is also a short stretch of netting.

Black lines indicate fence boundaries
Once we are through with the lush season of grass growth we’ll relax on subdividing the 40 acre parcels. We could keep it up but I do have a limit as too how much of my summer season I want to spend moving portable fencing. I’m an advocate of rotational grazing and paying attention to livestock affect on grass, but I can’t claim to be a staunch practitioner of any of the intensive grazing programs that are out there. For me it boils down to what works best overall for land, animal and my enjoyment of what I do.

I need to find someone who is passionate about grass management to maximize the grass potential here.