Rotational Strip Grazing

This is the story of how I learned how to properly care for our pastures.

Photos from when we first bought the property, fall 2012:

When we first put livestock on our property in 2013, we fenced 1 acre to start (out of 3 that were in pasture) and continuously grazed with a few calves and chickens. When the forage ran out, we dumped hay into the field. This method ended up being hard on the animals (due to parasites) and hard on the field. The animals ate the tops off of their favorite things first–such as clovers and young grasses–and when they’d eaten one bite off of each favorite plant in the whole field, they’d just go around and eat another bite. Soon, these favorites were only an inch high. The things they didn’t like–such as thistles, burdock, and mature grasses–were untouched. These unliked plants grew tall and went to seed and multiplied themselves.

Photos of the stock and fields in summer 2013:

In 2014, I had added sheep and things were starting to become overwhelming. I put in a barnyard and another small field, so that I could rotate the animals through two paddocks, and then put them in the barnyard with hay to let the pastures rest. I realized that if we continued on this path, we would have a field of things that livestock really didn’t like to eat, a field that looked scrubby and worn down, a field that eroded bits of itself every time it rained, a field that wasn’t even pleasant to walk in. But honestly, we had no money for cross-fencing because we hadn’t put in our perimeter fencing yet. When I calculated the price for woven wire paddocks, the cost was astronomical. Instead, we purchased some clover and frost seeded for the next few years in the hopes of improving the pastures that way.

Things looked pretty bad in summer 2014:
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With the help of our new neighbors, we fenced the rest of our acreage in time for the 2015 grazing season. Now we had the original, abused 1 acre field, and the 2 acre field that had been used for cattle and hay for years, then left fallow for all of 2014. We had a few more sheep, and no more cattle. We ended up grazing the 1 acre down pretty low routinely, and then rotating the flock to the 2 acre field. The land continued to look poorly, the 1 acre field getting overgrazed as before, the 2 acre field being severely undergrazed all year. Even if we rested the fields for 60 days, there wouldn’t be much re-growth.

In 2015, the pastures were still at the mercy of the elements, responding to drought swings, and suffering from a combination of over and under grazing:

After more research, I discovered the solution to our problems. We needed to divide our field up into paddocks, but still couldn’t afford permanent woven wire field. Sheep didn’t usually stay in high tensile, electric or not. We needed something that was affordable and worked well with sheep, so I sold a few ewes and invested in two rolls of electric net and a solar charger.

At the time, I had no idea how electricity worked. I also had no idea how electric net fencing worked, or if it would actually contain my sheep. And were the benefits of paddocks, to the land and to the animals, really worth all this cost?

That year, in the summer of 2016, I started using the electric net to create paddocks. We immediately saw a difference. We were able to use two strands of net to create uneven shapes in the fields, using the perimeter fencing as the base, and eyeballing where the sheep had grazed before. Each of these paddocks was probably 1/4 to 1/8 of an acre, so when we put our flock of sheep in, they were forced to eat everything, not just the things they liked. There just wasn’t enough stuff in there for them to get to pick and choose, they wanted to fill their bellies! This also concentrated the manure, and allowed the sheep to trample some of the plants that they didn’t enjoy into the soil as organic matter. While the sheep grazed one paddock, all the rest of the land could rest and grow at an even pace, which meant that we had a higher quantity of tall forage that the sheep enjoyed eating than in years past. All the clover we had seeded over the years was able to grow to 12 inches high, and some of it was able to seed itself again. Then the sheep would graze it down, deposit their manure, and move onto the next paddock. We were working in the way that nature works: a large concentration of stock, sticking close together for predator protection, descend upon a field and eat it in small sections, moving as they devour, leaving poop in their wake to fertilize the fields once they have moved on.

Things were looking up in the summer of 2016:

For 2017, I got serious about strips. I decided that the paddocks needed to be in even strips that I could manage and see what had been previously grazed. I also added an aisleway to the field so that I could move sheep to and from the barn easily, without them contaminating the fields that were resting with impromptu grazing or manure deposits filled with parasites. I added cattle back to the rotation, since we suddenly had 4 times the amount of forage we’d had any of the previous years. I even used my new riding lawn mower to mow the fields flat after the livestock had grazed them (reason being that if there were any undesirables like thistle or burdock that they still hadn’t trampled or eaten, that I could try to keep it from going to seed).

This year, with rotational strip grazing, we have seen the best from our fields. We have more forage than ever before, that grew taller and more plentiful than I’ve ever seen. In the peak of the season, after only 30 days of rest, I saw over 12 inches of forage growth in the 2 acres. I hope that as we build organic matter over the years, and continue this form of management, that we will see even more improvements to our land.

Summer photos from 2017:

Fall photos from 2017:

 

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We’re still here, with meat galore.

I realize that I never update this thing! We’re pretty Facebook-oriented right now, so that’s where you’ll find the most recent content.

I apologize for disappearing, the Lyme disease and subsequent health issues really took their toll these past 2 years. We downsized to keep everything manageable, and that was really the best decision. But starting this spring, we have been building back up again, increasing the numbers of stock we’re raising, adding beef cattle, subtracting meat chickens.

Starting spring 2018, we will be at the local farmers market again! If you need meat in the meantime, check out the products page and shoot us an email.

Lambs Spring 2017

 

One Vibrant, Overwhelming Season

Each year, spring overwhelms us again.

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I have a feeling that it’s the same with most homesteaders. We purge the clutter from our closets and our yards and our fields; rearrange the livestock quarters and realize that, once again, we’ve failed to prep enough garden beds for the coming season. In February and March, we ashamedly purchase all our produce at grocery stores, having exhausted local markets and personal stores.

By the time April comes on, we are already tired, but there is beauty everywhere. There is beauty everywhere, and it is exhausting.

It is easy to feel like you are stepping into the bog of projects. Do too much, and you will sink. Do just enough so that you float until June comes to dry the quagmire.

And so I will get through May, like we all do every year. May season and May day and May poles to marvel at. May we all survive May.

Lambs Spring 2016

It’s been a long time since the last post! The dark winter months are starting to let up and spring is just around the corner.

We’ve come out of lambing doing well this year, despite the rocky start losing 2 out of 3 triplets from our new ewe Ginger.

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Stud Muffin is the father of all the lambs except for the two black ones.

 

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Ginger with her ewe lamb Charcoal.

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Dora with her ewe lamb Mocha.

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Louise with her small twins, Lilac and Lavender.

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Cow with her triplets Chamomile, Calendula, and Chicory.

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Thelma with her big twins, currently nameless.

Coming on Fall

The wheat harvest did not go as planned. Mostly, this means that the chickens broke into my hoop where it was drying and decimated my crop. The good news is that this fed them for 3 days. The bad news is that it took me 6 months and 100 sq ft to grow enough feed for 20 chickens to eat for 3 days. Talk about a reality check in sustainability. This is what I try to explain to people when they tell me I should grow grain to feed my animals: I could, but it takes the big guys less time, money, and resources to do the same. We all depend on conventional farming to support our daily lives, it’s just that some of us delude ourselves into thinking we depend on them less.

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The more homesteady aspects of the HeartMoss life are going well: the rabbits and sheep continue breeding, some of the pigs have gone to slaughter while the others have gotten larger, and the chicks we’ve been hatching all year are turning into real full-grown chickens. The pasture has held out this year into November, in striking contrast to last year when we had to start feeding hay at the end of October. Our guardian dog, Puff, is turning into a teenager and sometimes he chases after the sheep and cats like they’re dog friends that he can play with. We’re hoping to get lucky and not have very many poultry problems while he’s in his teen phase. By the time lambing season begins in March, he will be 11 months old and should be capable of fully guarding the sheep flock.

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I’m spending a lot of time away from the farm in order to make some extra money, but it’s definitely a problem when there is so much to do at home.

A few weeks ago I bought two turkeys that were supposed to be our Thanksgiving dinner. Well, I noticed that they seemed a little hennish, and sure enough (through some internet readings) I decided that they were female. So instead of having turkey dinner, I went out and bought a tom turkey to keep them company. This way they can begin breeding and laying eggs in the spring to propagate the next turkey generation. This is the hope, at least.

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The winter garden is going well so far. This year I finally got my low tunnels together. I used large nails as spikes and black plastic well tubing as hoops, then put row cover over the top of it. This is held down with t-posts (a good material) and bricks (which I do not recommend) to keep the tension up in the fabric. We’re growing spinach, lettuce, and kale under these, and it’s growing much faster then if it was in the open air, plus the plants should have protection in January and February from the worst of the winter weather.

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I can’t wait to see what winter throws at us this year.

Wheat Harvest

Growing grains is one of the most rewarding experiences. I’m not sure if it’s their ancient significance, the sheer height of the plants, or the satisfaction of bundling, drying, and threshing the harvest. It’s certainly not an experience that you can accomplish overnight.

We use whatever variety of winter wheat is locally available and plant in the fall. The seeds can be broadcast sewn over a field and then covered with some mulch to deter the birds. In the spring, it will look like some bright green grass (wheatgrass) has shot up in the field. Very soon, your wheat will begin to get tall and develop the characteristic seed heads.

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As summer progresses, it will dry into a beautiful golden color and stop growing. The seed heads are naturally dried a little bit on the stalks at this point. You know your wheat is ready to harvest when the seed heads begin to angle themselves more dramatically, bending in swooping arcs that will eventually angle towards the ground. Now is the time to harvest, before the wheat falls out of the husk.

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I used a pair of small, sharp hand shears to cut the wheat at the base while holding the middle of the stalk. Then I loaded it into the wheel barrow, making sure all the grain heads were the same direction. When I ran out of space in the wheel barrow, I used buckets to hold the wheat.

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Then I sat for a long and tied the wheat into bundles called sheaves. This uses twine to bind the stalks together. Then the sheaves are all leaned together to form a shock that further allows the wheat to dry.

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I snacked on the wheat berries all the while, of course. More updates to come once the seed heads finish drying!

Lambs Spring 2015

I thought we were overrun with babies before, but we have more than ever! There are 100 meat chicks in the brooder, future egg-layer chicks hatching from the incubator, baby rabbits on the way, bottle piglets, and plenty of lambs.

The momma sheep have been excellent at their jobs and have really helped this newbie shepherd out. All of the babies have been born without me being there.

We still have two more ewes to go and are staying plenty busy with all the springtime events. The Farmers Market starts in just a couple weeks and we couldn’t be more excited!

Spring in Full Swing

There are all kinds of babies running around the farm, and there will soon be more. We’ve got chicks, piglets, lambs, and bunnies! The piglets have been doing a fine job of tilling the garden. When we first brought them in the whole thing was covered in grass. Now it looks like someone took a tiller to it! All that’s left to do is rake it into beds and get planting.

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Our little herd sire ram lamb is not growing UP much but is certainly growing fat.

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He’s my rolly-polly lamb. We’ve also got two bottle baby ewe lambs in the house, and we’re sure that more are on the way from a few first-time mommas that come from less-than-attentive parentage.

We’ve got a lot going on and will no doubt get busier as April gets underway. It might turn into a blog-in-photos, but I will make sure to get something posted here!

Making Compost

Here on the farm, we use the deep litter method with as many animals as possible. It makes for less work in the short run, but more work in the long run, especially with small buildings that are not mobile and do not allow for tractor access. Deep litter bedding means that as the animals pee and poo in their barns at night, we add enough carbonaceous material to keep things dry and keep the smell down. This creates an active compost within each barn building, generating quite a bit of heat. In the summer time, this means that we use more pine shavings, open more ventilation, and clean the barns out more often. In the winter time, this means we bed down lots of material and let it work its magic.

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Rabbit Poop + Hay = Compost!

The downside to deep litter bedding means that a few times a year, the half-composted material in the barns must be shoveled out.

Each February, we do a thorough shoveling out of all the barns. The bedding is then moved into large piles or into pallet structures, where it will further compost and provide the growing medium for much of the garden. We also may spread some of the bedding back over the pastures, adding organic matter and fertilizer so that the livestock will have thicker, healthier forage.

 

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The mound of compost after cleaning out the sheep barn.

The neat part about the pallet style composts is that the chickens love to climb on the top and scratch around, providing aeration and adding their manure to the pile, thereby speeding up the process.

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