How Pasture Comes to Be

I think I confuse people I talk to when I use sentences like, “I’ll be there after I make some pasture for the sheep” or “They ate the whole paddock and now they want more.”  How does that work if they’re grazing 30 open acres?

I use intensive rotational grazing to manage my pasture.  Using portable electric net fencing, I give the sheep only what they can eat in a half-day or a day.  Grazing this way requires careful monitoring of fodder health and height – undergrazing is wasteful and overgrazing can damage the field for weeks (or years if the root damage is severe and erosion occurs).

This year, I am managing the sheep in the morning before work begins.  I begin walking across the already-consumed areas to where the sheep are today, at the far end of the west side of the field.  They begin to baa as soon as they see me.  I can see that their pasture is down to about 4 -6 inches.  Just about perfect.

Sheep and Pickle Farm Rotational Grazing

I turn off the fence and hustle them into one of the two paddocks they occupied.  Agnes tries to follow me instead of following the herd, so I have to shoo her away.  Sometimes she’s handy, sometimes she’s a pain!  Once the gate is closed behind the sheep, I can disassemble the paddock by picking up the fence like an accordion.  As I pick the fence up, I look carefully at their eating patterns.  Bedstraw is perennially unpopular with my sheep, but they nipped some shrubby growth down very well and thwarted the encroaching woods.  In a few areas, the sheep may have overgrazed a plant or two.  I’ll try to build a larger area for them next time.   The delicate balance rests on pushing the sheep to eat the unpalatable species without allowing them to overgraze the tastier ones.  Tricky business!

The sheep  baa impatiently as I consider how to set the boundaries of the next space.  I want to include the nice, shady apple tree, but still have enough grass.  Since today is my day off, I can make another space this afternoon, so I think I’ll make this space smaller than a usual day’s pasture.   Agnes is standing by the section I’ll open as a gate.

Sheep and Pickle Farm Rotational Grazing

A hawk flies overhead, and the breeding pair of ravens grunts and croaks from across the field.  I’m near the edge of the field, so I notice a roll of old barbed-wire fencing left to rust and rot beside a mossy stone wall.

Sheep and Pickle Farm Rotational Grazing

Sheep and Pickle Farm Rotational Grazing

Soon, I’ve arranged a whole new paddock.  I release the sheep, and they run full-tilt into their next space, taking random mouthfuls as they sniff out the most delectable plants.  There’s no explaining to them that they have to eat the whole thing anyway, so they might as well be systematic!

Sheep and Pickle Farm Rotational Grazing

I watch the sheep calm down and graze peacefully.  Some lambs are grazing, and others are entertaining themselves nibbling the old wild apple tree.  Dot relieves an itch using the tree, too.  Don’t wreck your wool, Dot!Image