Land Reclamation Using Sheep -- A Narrative Tour of our Farm
From time to time we host pasture walks to introduce people to the benefits of pasture intensive rational grazing using sheep to do the task. We lead them aroud the 20 designated acres. About one half of the area is covered with luscious high-nutrient green grass from which our sheep solely receive their nutrition during the summer grass growing months, which for us lasts from around May 1st until December 1st. This grass consists of enough nutrition to adequately raise either singles or twins. The other half consists of saplings and other forb. We use this to keep the sheep condition in balance.
Management of pastures
Our flock consists of about 25 Montadale and Montadale cross sheep plus their lambs and a couple of rams and wethers.
We use almost no lime or commercial fertilizer. The soil pH is monitored intensively every 10 years and more loosely every year and ranges from around 5.5 to 6.0. We usually use organic methods of spot treating weeds including lopping off and salting the stems of thistles and burdock and covering badly infested areas with 5 mil black plastic for four years to completely smother out undesirable weeds. Now saplings are not cut down. The sheep eventually kill them by stripping the bark, and this adds diversity to their food supply. Then the saplings are left to die, fall over, and decay in place. This is one way to add nutrients to the soil. The only reseeding done comes from what falls out of the hay that is fed on top of the snow.
To do winter hay feeding on the land farther up on the hill, where extra fertility from manure and urine are needed, I have set up some white hoop structures. Each hoop structure holds about 150 bales of hay. With this system I have only to snowshoe to the desired white garage and put the hay onto the desired location where I wish the sheep to eat. I don't even have to lock the paddock gate behind them. They stay where the hay is until being called to the barn yard. At this time they do receive a bit of whole corn as an incentive. The hay can be put out while they are not under foot. The alternative would have been to drag the hay up the hill in winter—not an easy task especially when it has to be carried up a grade of about 18% and a distance of about 300 yards. I could feed them through their head holes in the barn. However, since they do a much better spreading their manure than can I, outside feeding is much preferable. My dedication is to cycle the feeding of the soil, to feed the grass, to feed the sheep, to feed the soil again and these sheep take care of this feeding process. Feeding around each structure for only about 20 days means that the buildup of wasted hay on the pasture is not too thick and it does not have to be removed in the spring. In fact, the wasted hay adds nutrients as it decomposes and manure and urine on it wash into the soil. As pasture areas are improved, the hoop structures are moved to new areas.
The summer rotations are short. The animals are in a paddock for as short a time as 1/4 day or as long as once a day before being moved to another paddock. Time of moving depends upon the density of the sward and/or the size of the paddock. Paddocks are intentionally very small. They range from approximately 500 square feet for 25 dry ewes and 2,000 square feet of lush mostly grass for the ewes and their 30 or so lambs. The effect this short-term intensive grazing has had on plant composition over the past 14 years is very noticeable to us.
The pasture is fenced in with electric fencing. The perimeter is five strand high tensile electric, and instead of using electric netting, the interior is permanently subdivided with four or five strands of stranded aluminum wire fencing. It is unusual to see permanent cross fencing on intensive grazing farms. I use the aluminum stranded wire instead of netting, as it is not easy dragging netting on the steep brushy terrain to subdivide these pastures. All I have to do is to open up the paddock gate and the sheep very quickly go through to where the good grass is standing. Also no dogs are needed in this operation. With this type of fencing and our guardian llama, we have not lost any sheep to predation as of this time. Water is provided in the pasture up the hill as far as the house well will reach. Beyond that, I fill a tank mounted in the back of my pickup truck with water, drive it up the hill, hose it into the water holding tanks, and via gravity it flows into other tanks with float valves into various paddocks. Salt, in the form of mineral sheep mix, is always in the same paddock as the water.
In the barn, where we put the mothers and lambs after birthing, several practices are revealed to help contribute to our fleeces winning grand champion ribbons. Much of this is due to our type of feeding system. All our sheep have sheep coats to help keep the wool even cleaner than it would be otherwise. After shearing we put each fleece on our large skirting table one at a time and clean it up and then bag it for selling to hand spinners, usually either by the whole fleece or by one pound units. We usually get about 200 pounds of wool per year.
I now am receiving about $10.00 per pound. Before I started selling fleeces to hand spinners by the method above, I was selling it in one big 200-lb. wool bag for about $1 per pound... some difference! When I did use the wool bag technique, I would hang the bag around an old 1920s automobile wheel rin from so floor so that it hung over the truck bed. Upon filling, it would be let down, tied, and then kept in the bed until selling.
A couple more points that I would like to mention are that now that corn prices are high because of the alternative fuel situation, I am glad that I have for the most part mastered the art of Managed Intensive Grazing. However, I still have much to learn. Also, we do have the luxury of eating our own lamb meat. Grazing lambs, without the use of corn, makes the meat much more healthful for us to eat.
Christopher D. Hall
Ribbon Winning Fleeces
Flora/Fauna Montadale Sheep Graziers