I have always felt it an honor and an obligation to take the best care of our little piece of land that I can.
Last year, I signed up for an online series of classes with CSU all about land stewardship. There were many things I knew already - and knew we needed to do. But this finally kicked my butt into doing it, and learning new things along the way.
I took classes on soil health, pasture grasses, weed identification and even animal emergencies and how to prep for evacuation. It was a great series of classes I took when I had time, and I really did learn a lot.
I purchased seed to plant in some of the dead areas of our pasture - the right kind of seed for our livestock and our climate. I learned what I already had growing, and some ideas that were bouncing around in my brain really started to become priorities. So here are the big shifts we are making to take better care of our land, and let it take better care of our sheep.
Well, first, we bought a tractor. And with it, a mower, aerator and tiller. I can't keep Larry off that thing. It's so much nicer to drive than our huge Case Construction King. He immediately mowed the pasture and aerated it. It's good to get oxygen down in the soil, and with the compaction of sheep and other livestock over the years, this will help boost forage growth.
Mowing seems silly, but it goes boost the growth of the forage we have. And really, we have some long wheat grasses that grow on our pasture. If the sheep don't eat it when it is short, they won't eat it at all. They hate sticking their heads into stuff that pokes them in the eye, so those sections of the field get overgrown. And it's wasted food. So we mowed it, opening that up for consumption by the sheep.
With the little tractor, we'll more easily be able to pull the manure spreader around the field. We had a great day this fall when the weather was nice, the ground was hard, and we were going to spread manure all day. As we got down to the bottom of our pile, it was wetter and wetter, and I'll be, we stacked it too high, it was too heavy, and we broke the chains. Again. We lost our spare parts in the house fire, so we had to get more. The place we buy parts from misplaced our order at least twice. Larry had to go in, and watch them enter it into their computer to ensure it got ordered. And then we had to wait until snow was done before we could repair the spreader and use it again. It's good at collecting snow in winter!
But now that it's fixed, and we have our new tractor, watch out world, we're going to be getting that manure out to the field. We walked the pasture in early spring and could see green strips where we had spread the manure. This needs to be done every fall.
But the real shift, and it has nothing to do with the tractor, is rotational grazing. We don't have the time or fortitude to try mob grazing - which is putting the sheep into a very small area and making them eat it all, and then moving them daily. We are going to try segmenting our field into 4 pieces, and moving them every few weeks. This allows the other 3 sections to grow grasses for a longer period of time. It also forces the sheep to eat everything in their section. If left to their own devices, sheep will eat all the ice cream first, and leave the meat and potatoes for last. They will chow down on their favorites, leaving the other grasses alone, in some cases, until they get bitter and they don't want to eat them. This forces them to eat the other grasses when the "ice cream" is gone. We can tell when it's time to change fields by the uniform height of the grasses, and the discontented noises the sheep make. We just made our first switch to a new section this week. You can see the difference between the sections, and the sheep were ecstatic to have a lush, tall, green field to eat in. They've been quiet for days now, with full bellies. And section number 1, now gets three rotations of the field to rest and regrow before they come back.
This does require electric fences that we have to move each time. We don't want to put up permanent fencing, as that makes manure spreading, mowing and aerating more difficult.
The secondary benefit here is we also get to rotate the chickens. We have been moving our chickens through the pasture for years. Chickens and sheep don't mix, as chicken feed is poisonous to sheep (too much copper). So we had to run the electric fencing around the chickens, and move that every two weeks. Now, since the sheep are on 1/4 of the pasture, the chickens can be freely moved, even weekly, around the rest of the pasture. Just pull the truck, and move the feeders, and the chickens can roam all over. We're happy to get the chickens back out again. The truck required some repairs and with everything going on last year, we just had our hands full. This also helps the soil - as it spreads their manure around naturally, while they take care of ticks and mosquitos in the pasture.
This is the result of a 2 week rotation. The sheep will really enjoy the dandelions when they get to move to that section of pasture. Now, to fix our pump, so we can get back to irrigating the dry spots on the pasture.
We're starting to come out of the fog of losing all our stuff. And getting back into the groove here. Stepping up and taking care of our land, so it can take care of our sheep. I am still working towards having a flock of 25 ewes, and I need pasture that can support that. I've been working towards this for a while, but have had some mishaps along the way. The grain incident, that took 3 of my best ewes. A spate of mastitis that has ruined the udders of several ewes, and the normal culling of poor performing ewes, or ewes with bad behavior. I'll be at 22 ewes by summertime, and I can pick 3 more ewe lambs to keep, and I'll finally be at capacity!