Spring sheep maintenance

Today was the day to try out equipment Roy has been busy making over the fall and winter. He has built a set of yards to work the sheep, including a capture chute that has a scale built into it. Many thanks to Gibraltar Farm for the great advice on building all of this! Purchasing this equipment would cost many thousands of dollars, and this homemade version, while a little “clunky,” is perfectly adequate.

It’s time to see how much weight these girls have gained since joining us at Morning Star Meadows. Also time to boost their vaccinations, check feet and overall health.

This is the basic set up with the chute and a number of simple panels made from 2x4s that connect either with rebar or good ‘ol baling twine!

Vaccine and records ready for recording

Bringing the sheep up from their pasture was easy, as the girls are quite used to us and to being moved. In fact, they will call to us when they want to go to the next pasture!

Getting them to move into the chute was quite simple. In fact we had more trouble stopping their friends from trying to double up!

Once in the chute it was simple to record their weight, give them a quick health check and administer their yearly vaccination.

A home made sheep chute is both effective and relatively inexpensive to make

Everyone gets a turn to inject a vaccine. This is the multivalent vaccine covering Clostridium perfringens types C & D and tetanus.

And finally we noticed that with all the rain we’ve been having, some of their hooves had overgrown (walking on the soft ground, not wearing them down), and they needed a bit of a pedicure before letting them back on to the pasture. It was relatively simple to catch them as they exited the chute and tip them onto their rear for a few seconds of toenail sculpting.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

One of the most important aspects of feeding ruminants entirely on grass these days is variations on the theme of intensive rotational grazing.   This means that the animals are moved regularly, according to some preconcieved pattern and specific timing.

But why bother?  Why not just let the animals graze wherever they want, whenever they want?  Because both research and experience have shown us that this will result in poor pasture utilization, overgrowth of unwanted plants that are not as palatable or nutritious (aka “weeds”), thriving parasite populations, less healthy animals, and ultimately, a low stocking rate due to all of these factors.  Counterintuitively perhaps, by concentrating on “farming the grass”  rather than farming the livestock, you will develop a more abundant, safe, natural, and nutritionally complete diet for your livestock and increase the health and well-being of your animals.

In the photographs below, you will observe two pastures; the “after” grazing pasture, and the new “before” grazing pasture into which the sheep have just been moved.  We try to size the pastures so that the sheep move every 3-4 days, since the nematode parasites that plague many flocks take about that amount of time to develop from eggs into the infective larvae ready to be ingested.  By moving them out just when the parasites are ready to infect, we can attempt to break this cycle and keep the animals healthier.

Another important aspect of the moving time is to “size” the pasture so that during that time, approximately half to two thirds of the grass is eaten or trodden down.  This will firstly ensure that there is sufficient grazing pressure that most of the plant species are impacted and that the more palatable species are not selectively mowed down, resulting in an overgrowth of less palatable “weeds”.  Secondly, the treading will mulch some of the longer stalks allowing them to break down and supplement the topsoil.  In addition, the treading will help bury the seed heads helping with regrowth later in the year.  Lastly, we cannot forget the natural fertilization that occurs when nutrient rich manure and urine saturate a small area while being trodden into the topsoil.  A well known grass farmer and advocate of this form of grazing, Joel Salatin, equates manure with gold, going so far as to post a picture of a cow patty with a dollar bill placed in the center!

Finally, grazing so that there is still sufficient grass blade left to harness the sunlight for photosynthetic incorporation of atmospheric CO2 more quickly, allows for deeper roots and quicker regrowth, resulting in better topsoil development and much hardier, drought resistant regrowth of the sward.  We will not bring the animals back onto these areas for at least 60-80 days. allowing for the death of some parasite larvae, and robust regrowth of grass with building of the topsoil in the process.  For those ecology-minded folks, this process, done properly,  creates a huge net carbon incorporation  and builds the pasture while creating efficiencies that allows almost twice the number of animals to be grazed per acre.

The advantage of all this is that we can raise twice the animals, eliminate parasite problems without chemicals, build the pasture without fertilizers, and help save the planet (if you buy into the whole global warming due to excess carbon thing… about which we are more than a little skeptical).  And as a final advantage, the sheep LOVE moving into the next verdant smorgasbord.  It always gives us a kick to see them baa-ing at the gateway, as we prepare the next portion for them to move into.