The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Category: Farming (page 1 of 4)

Wonder Woman

My wonder woman

Have you ever known someone that continually surprises you with newfound abilities? Who is always blowing past the boundaries of what you thought they could handle? And when you think about them, you are often left in a state of pure wonder?

That’s how I feel about my wife.

As I watched her expertly milk our Nanny goat this morning, after starting from scratch only a few days ago (both for her AND the goat), I was simply amazed. How did this suburban girl, elementary educator, and seminary graduate with no farm experience figure out how to do this? And she’s been doing it faithfully every day since we started, often giddy with enthusiasm.

Ready to milk

It’s not only the goats. She’s also the reason we have pigs this year (sometimes a point of contention), having researched and found a breeder, driving to another town to pick them up and bringing them home to their new stall in the barn. And then moving them two months later and 150 pounds heavier into their permanent home in another shed.

pigs

She has been relentless against the weeds in our oversized garden. It simply would not be possible for me to keep up this year without her dedication. (The beauty of Back to Eden gardening is that after the early spring weed-explosion, you don’t have much to contend with the rest of the summer. But you still have to weed or they can take over.)

She’s helped me chase broiler chickens into the coop at night and made sure the laying hens had enough water on steamy days. She fumbles with the electro-netting fence with me every few days as we try to move a herd of sheep into new pasture. When we had to shear the sheep early due to hot weather, she was right there with me in the stall, holding the ewes down or snipping off wool with the shears.

Shearing the sheep

She woke up nightly at 2am to feed our orphaned lamb. Something even I was unwilling to do.

Bottle feeding runs to the barn

After I dug the holes, she planted 25 pine trees with the kids (future Christmas trees).

Planting future christmas trees

She introduced beekeeping to our farm a few years ago.

Becca's bees

She was my only partner as we installed a 210-foot wooden-rail fence in only 2 days this spring.

Most recently she helped empty bedding from the animal stalls this week. Actually, she is the reason we got started at all. This is the worst chore on the farm folks, and she was knee deep in there with me pitching a winter’s worth of HEAVY manure.

Animal stalls

And let’s not forget, on top of all this, she also has an indoor farm to keep up with every day!

Indoor farm

She is one amazing woman. She is my Wonder Woman.

Farmwife

 


Sheep Week

Good Shepherd

Oh my word. The sheep. First of all, they are so pretty out in our pasture. A group of fluffy white in the middle of all our green just feels right. They are pretty and pastoral. Their lambs are darling. And their loyalty to their shepherd demonstrates so much of scripture, lived out right in front of us. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Rory and his sheep are tight. He’s a good shepherd and they’ve got a special bond.

Flock of sheep in pasture

I, on the other hand, don’t feel quite so connected to the sheep. Mostly because I’m not out there multiple times a day caring for them. But also because sheep are pretty aloof if you’re not the one bringing them their food. The goats have big personality. The sheep seem indifferent.

Anyway, Rory is trying this rotational grazing thing that is good for the soil, good for the sheep and good for sustainable land practices. He has nine paddocks set up in our orchard for the sheep to rotate on. They’ll live in one paddock for a few days before being moved to the next one and on and on. In the end, this will be a really low-key way to pasture the sheep.

But this year it has taken some serious set up. On the advice of another farmer, we didn’t let our sheep out on the pasture until June 1, so that the grass and alfalfa could establish itself after the winter. But it turns out that this year, that date was way too late. The grass took off the last week of May, and by the time we realized what was happening out there, the grass was taller than Rory!

Grass growing out of control

Sheep like young grass, the shorter stuff. Not the tall stuff. So Rory has been out there FOR HOURS mowing down the tall grass in each paddock making it ready for the white fluffs to come and lay down in his green pastures.

Mowing Tall Grasses

And then this was the week that we finally found someone to come and shear our sheep. And just in time! These poor guys have been wearing their huge wool sweaters all spring and tomorrow is supposed to hit 99 degrees here. The shearing was eventful and stressful. We had an older farmer and a neighbor come to help us with the hopes that we might learn how to shear on our own.

Shearing the sheep with Lloyd and Gary

Rory and Farmer Lloyd wrangled the first sheep out on the concrete so the wool wouldn’t be mixed with the bedding of the stalls. They wrestled that sheep to the ground and in the mayhem Rory got his finger bit so hard that blood was dripping all over that clean concrete floor. He left to clean his wound, and I left with the children, discussing what “stressful” means on our way into the house. Later, I went back out to see how it was going and a different sheep spotted me in the window, got spooked and pulled the halter loose and began running pell mell all around the barn with half a fleece trailing behind her, through the dirty bedding. I quietly backed up and pretended I hadn’t returned.

In the end we decided that we will gladly hire this job out each year. And we will forever stand in awe of 4-H children who shear their sheep with confidence and ease. Actually, we will stand in awe that 4-H children can even move their sheep from their stall out to the arena for showing. We will watch these sheep events with much more appreciation this year at the fair!

And finally, because of the heat, and because our fruit trees are still too little to provide shade, the sheep will need shade in each paddock. So Rory worked the past few nights out in the barn building a mobile shelter. It’s pretty awesome.

Portable Shelter

All in all, this whole week has been about the sheep. They even found their way out of their electric fence and into the neighbors back yard. But when Rory called to them, they came back right away. Because he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He’s a good shepherd.


Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing for Sheep

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing. That’s a mouthful. MIRG for short.

MIRG is a system of pasturing animals to maximize pasture growth. Proponents call it farming grass.

Two sheep grazing

Rotational grazing is nothing new. Dividing up a pasture into paddocks to prevent overgrazing goes back to the earliest agrarian societies. What is fairly recent is intensive rotational grazing. Instead of pasturing animals in a large paddock for a month or two, then moving them to the next paddock, MIRG is pasturing animals in very small paddocks for just a few days at a time, or in some cases hours.

The heart of the idea stems from giving pasture the optimum amount of time to re-grow before being grazed again. Short grazing periods stimulate growth, long grazing periods destroy pasture.

Colorado State University

Colorado State University

There are many benefits to the animals as well:

  • Animals are exposed to more varieties of forage because they cannot simply return to their favorite alfalfa patch every day
  • Animals are forced to move and exercise more
  • Fewer parasites build up in the soil and affect the animals
  • Manure is more evenly spread

Finally, perhaps the biggest benefit of all is soil health. MIRG and techniques like it build up far larger amounts of topsoil than any other known method. Rather than continually depleting the soil and subsidizing with chemical fertilizers, MIRG allows me to build healthier pastures that are self-sustaining.

Contrary to what it may seem, grazing is necessary to healthy pastures. If pastures are not grazed they turn into deserts. This was brought to my attention by the compelling TED talk by Allan Savory, a pioneer in the field of holistic land management.

Since acquiring our sheep last Summer I have had this nagging desire to figure out MIRG and apply it to our farm.

Tonight, I finally figured it out.

My first question was, can MIRG be used with a small scale of animals? We have 3 ewes and 1 ram currently, expecting lambs this Spring. The answer appears to be yes; I have found no literature saying there is a minimum amount of animals required. As long as the space requirements are met, the benefits of rotational grazing applies to 4 sheep just as much as 40,000.

My second question was, how do I size the paddocks for the number of sheep I have? The numbers are all over the map on this, and “stocking density” isn’t a terribly popular subject online. Thanks to a University of Minnesota Extension presentation, I was able to get some hard numbers and convert them for our farm.

The calculations use “Animal Units” or AU’s which are a livestock standard based on a mature 1,000 pound cow. The MIRG approach assumes 33 AUs per acre per day. So that’s 33 cows, or about 33,000 pounds. Keep in mind, this is dependent on the pasture productivity. It could be as low as 25 AUs or high as 80 AUs. But for the purposes of getting started, I am going with the 33 AU number.

My last question was, how big do I need to make the paddocks and how many of them do I need? If MIRG requires 33 cows per acre, that equates to 1,320 square feet per cow. Since our mature sheep are approximately 200 lbs, they will need 1/5th the space, or 264 sq ft.

The grazing periods should be as frequent as you can handle, no more than 5 days per paddock. Once per day seems to be a desirable number in most of the literature. But I have a day job, so I’m settling for twice per week. That means I will increase the spacing by 3.5, which is ~900 sq ft per sheep. Multiply by 4 sheep and we get to 3,600 square feet per paddock.

Square paddocks are recommended as opposed to rectangular or wedge-shaped which do not tend to get evenly grazed. So that means I’ll be making 60’x60′ paddocks (out of electric fencing) in addition to lanes for the sheep to follow to get to each paddock.

Drawing of paddocks for MIRG approach

Finally, I calculated out how many times I would have to move the sheep to allow the paddocks 30 days of rest between grazing. It’s 10.

To recap, modified MIRG for 4 sheep:

  • 33 Cows (AUs) / Acre = 165 Sheep / Acre (Using 0.2 AU)
  • 1,320 sq ft / cow = 264 sq ft / sheep
  • 3-4 day rotation = ~900 sq ft per animal
  • 4 sheep = 3,600 sq ft total
  • 3,600′ = 60’x60′ paddocks
  • Requires 10 paddocks to achieve 29-day rest period

This is subject to change depending on the number of lambs born this Spring, and the productivity of our pasture. The rule of thumb was to graze the animals when the grass reaches 9-inches and to move them when its down to 2″ or 3″.

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing: Sheep enjoying pasture at sunset


Sheep & Apples

Sheep grazing in the background with apples in the foreground

The story of our getting sheep started with a hunt for hay baling equipment. Every year we lose one-third to one-half of our hay crop to delays. We rely on a neighboring farmer to cut and bale our hay, and being one of the smallest acreages on their list, we often miss the best weather for cutting and drying. Needless to say, this has been a source of much aggravation each Spring.

Every year as the farmer comes to chop and haul away the wet, rotting hay I resolve once more get my own baling equipment and start making my own hay. Just a few problems. Baling implements are expensive and my tractor isn’t powerful enough to run them. By the time I’d finished making all the upgrades I’d be $15,000 in the hole. That’s a lot of debt for 3 acres of hay.

So I did what I always do when faced with an unsolvable problem. I prayed about it. The Lord told me I hadn’t done enough research. There were creative alternatives I hadn’t considered yet. That’s when the hints about sheep started appearing. “Little Lambs” started appearing everywhere, starting with Harriet’s shower gifts. She received three lamb stuffed animals from three different people. Then a friend asked if I would consider raising sheep this year because he wanted to buy locally grown lamb. I finally got it.  The creative alternative: Don’t bring the hay to the animals, bring the animals to the hay.

Two sheep grazing

Three sheep grazing

The sheep have been wonderful to keep. They baaa incessantly every time I enter the barn to let them out or shut them up. Although its more of a maaa, as in “maaa! give me more hay!”

They are more skittish than the goats, who are as friendly as dogs. But they are getting more tame over time. Their propensity to waddle through cockleburs, those velcro-like seed pods that stick to everything, means we won’t be getting much usable wool out of them.

Sheep grazing among the apple trees

It has taken most of the summer, training the sheep into various fencing configurations, but I finally was able to fence them into the alfalfa field surrounding my apple trees, which are planted in the corner of our hay field. Its the perfect setup. The sheep get fed mowing the grass around my trees. It had to be sheep, because goats or cows would certainly eat the trees as well!

Sheep's pasture

 


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