Discussing pasture with farmers is a lot like discussing politics; you will get a lot of strong opinions, but very few are based on solid facts and none agree with each other completely.
There are many using “confinement” animal maintenance systems who feel that confinement is the modern and efficient way to go, and pasturing animals is yesterday’s technology. They feel it is much more efficient to harvest the feed, bring it to the animals, and remove the manure for recycling onto their fields at their convenience. They prefer not to move animals around outside and deal with the weather, predator, illness, accident, and inefficient production problems perceived when animals roam around pastures.
Many old timers and folks new to agriculture feel that grass has been around since the beginning of time, and is here to be eaten; just put the animals out there and let them eat. This is called “setstocking”. They believe animals were designed to walk around large areas and graze and have been doing it forever. They feel most of the time, diesel fuel and resources used or tied up in a confinement system is time and money wasted. Walking around and gathering their own feed is the way animals were designed to work, and tinkering with that methodology only introduces disease and growth problems as well as extra cost and labor.
The idea of rotational grazing (the fancy name is Management Intensive Grazing or MIG) is not new, but has enjoyed considerable interest recently and been “discovered” by many in the never ending quest for cost effectiveness. Rotational grazing is similar to both “confinement” and “set stocking” in some ways and totally different in other ways. There are several really great books on this subject: “Salad Bar Beef” and “Pastured Poultry Profits” by Joel Salatin explain two customized versions and “Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence” by Bill Murphy explains the history of the concept with a lot of substantiating data. There is an EXCELLENT periodical called “The Stockman GrassFarmer”; call 1-800-748-9808 for a sample copy - http://www.grass farmer.com. If your local book store can’t get them for you, type the book name into some web search engines and you will find a source and all three can be ordered through “The Stockman GrassFarmer” Book Shelf.
Over simplifying, Management Intensive Grazers feel that if you raise ruminants, you are really a grass farmer not a cattleman or a shepherd or a pig farmer. Your job is to turn the natural resource of grass into beef or wool or pork in the most cost effective manner by using intensive grazing and efficient management practices. Most of us have noticed how much more the grass we mow in our yard seems to grow than in our neighbor’s yard where he never mows. Intensive grazing and grassland management can easily double the TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) available in addition to improving muscle tone development and the general health of the animals.
We rotationally graze our pastures. We have 30-40 separate pastures and we are increasing that number each year (not total acreage, NUMBER of pastures). Groups of sheep are moved every two days (sometimes one day and sometimes three days depending on group size, time of year, pasture condition, etc.) to a new pasture. All the claims made in favor of rotational grazing came true for us plus a few more. We have literally weedwacked a path through a wild raspberry thicket and other overgrown junk, using a compass as a guide, and set up portable fence. Shetlands set loose in this jungle of herbage will have eaten everything they can reach in a couple of weeks and enjoyed the experience. We precede the last pass of the year through reclaimed areas, with a heavy broadcast of a good pasture seed so the sheep can hoof till the seeds into the dirt (late August here in Vermont). The seeds germinate with some shade from the remnants of the jungle. The following year, we wait until the soil has dried out in the spring and let a group graze for a short time to keep the jungle regrowth under control and harvest some of the new grass before it goes to seed. We continue to graze the new “pasture” lightly the second year, but it goes into the regular cycle during the third year when most of the old “jungle” has died off. Some cosmetic chain sawing and weedwacking may be desirable.
It is important to put grazers into the pasture before the grass heads up to seed, and pull them out before they start eating the roots of the plants. Although one could consider intensive grazing and grassland management a rather exact science, we prefer to think of it as more of an art. So many variables are involved that rotation schemes can change daily and sometimes part way through a day. Most grasses reach maximum nutritional value just before going to seed, however, some grasses lose palatability at this stage so your sheep will just not eat those varieties. Therefore, at or before that time is when your sheep should harvest the pasture to get maximum benefit. This is not always possible, especially in the spring when the grass grows faster than the sheep can eat it and during a drought when there isn’t enough grass. That’s when we find out how close we have come to mastering the art of Grass Farming!!
Most farmers take very good care of their animals, being sure that they get whatever attention they need to stay in top form. As grass farmers, it is critical to take equally good care of our pastures. Soil tests are helpful in determining the nutritional condition of the pasture soil. We prefer to have soil tests done through our Extension Service or agricultural college. One must be very careful when interpreting the soil test and the advice that usually comes along with the test results. “Happy” soil is far more important than having the ph or mineral readings right on the mark. Soil with lots of organic material in it and a healthy earthworm population will overcome many ph and mineral deficiencies. “Happy” soil doesn’t just happen over night, it takes years of constant upgrading to achieve this goal.
We bucket load the manure and bedding “pack” out of the barnyard early every summer and into the manure spreader. We then spread it into a pile two - three feet high, from the back of the spreader, near the barnyard. This breaks up the pack and incorporates a lot of air into it. We let it sit for a month or so to compost before spreading onto the pastures. As it goes through the digestion process, the pile will steam on a cool morning. By the time we are ready to spread it onto the pasture, it has a very sweet and pleasant smell and is ready to do great things for the pasture. We sprinkle a one pound coffee can full of our preferred pasture grass seed on top of every spreader load of composted manure before it is applied to the pasture. This way, each grass seed sticks to a clump of compost and has the optimum conditions for germinating. It also reduces the number of times we drive over the pasture.
The timing of spreading manure on the pasture is quite critical. Many farmers consider the best time to spread manure is whenever the spreader is full. We feel that the best time is after the worst heat of summer has past and early enough so that the new grass can germinate and establish itself before the cold weather of winter sets in. We have determined that the third week of August is the best time for our farm on a mountain in central Vermont. We always pray for a lot of snow to insulate the grass from the coldest weather we get. We usually concentrate on improving a couple of pastures each year. They are taken out of the rotation after being spread and are grazed lightly the following year. We spread the manure VERY heavily. Although the impact of all the great composted manure seems like it should be dramatically obvious the second year, we have found that the improvement peaks the third year. The improvement seems to last several years and then dwindle off indicating that the pasture is ready for another boost. This length of time is more a function of soil type and condition than weather or grazing intensity.
The art of intensive grazing and grassland management, although complex, is very rewarding and becomes more a second nature way of doing business than an exact science that must be adhered to perfectly to succeed. The challenge is there and the reward is great. It isn’t rocket science but it can’t be ignored either.
Figuring the cost of pasture is pretty tricky because there are so many variables. There is the “old wives tale” that the pasture doesn’t cost you anything because you already own it. If that is your philosophy, we are going to have angry words. If you are really in the “sheep business” then, not only are you fooling yourself to disregard the cost to buy and maintain the land but you are undercutting others who are in business and must consider ALL costs. When calculating all the costs and all the income for a business, you must consider ALL costs and income. The income should exceed the costs in order to stay in business.
Our experience is that we can graze ten Shetlands per acre. Really horrible pasture in a very dry area would probably only sustain five Shetlands (and they wouldn’t like it) per acre and very thick pasture with some vines and other weeds would easily sustain 20 Shetlands (and they would be very happy campers) per acre. In our area, the Fair Market Value for open pasture land is around $1000 per acre, our taxes are very close to $2.00 per $100 of value, and we should be able to get a 6% return on investment if we had invested our money some way other than in pasture. All of these components change from time to time and place to place.
To sustain one Shetland, we will need 1/10 acre which would have a value of $100. The taxes on 1/10 acre would be $2.00 per year and the loss of the return on investment spent to buy that 1/10 acre would be $6.00 for a total cost for land at $8.00 per Shetland. Using our example of a flock of 2 rams, 12 ewes and 6 lambs, pasture would cost $160 per year. In addition, you will have to own, rent or hire-out a tractor and manure spreader to spread the manure from last winter into a composting area and then onto the pasture. You will also periodically have to manually remove thistles and other plants detrimental to fleeces as well as poisonous plants like Bracken fern, all plants in the Nightshade family, cherry trees, etc. Don’t forget the cost of seed to renew pastures along with possible nutrient supplements like lime and high nitrogen fertilizers (if necessary).
We’ll address the labor involved in maintaining the pasture in a separate section including all labor required to operate the farm.