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.