There is an idea out there regarding grazing animals that is quite literally so old, it has become new again. This type of grazing has many benefits, both for the land and for the animals. Think about a wild herd of grass-eating animals….the herd comes through, stops and grazes an open prairie for a day or two, and then moves on. Think too, on what occurs during this grazing time.
Benefits to the land include:
- Animals “massage” the land, rather than decimate and damage it.
- Animals manure and urinate all over, thus fertilizing the land. Since they stay such a short time, they do not poison or overload the land with their nutrient-rich waste.
- Animal manure contains seeds from the previous pasture, which then grow in that pasture. Because they generally prefer to eat only healthy, palatable forages, they are thereby distributing seeds from these plants, rather than weedy, less palatable ones.
- Each time grass is grazed down, the roots die back slightly, and the grass then regrows. This cycle keeps the grass in a fertile, nutrient-rich, growth state, unlike grass that matures, turns tough, stemmy, and fibrous, and goes to seed.
- Each time animals pass through, the land is naturally torn up a little–but not too much. This serves to aerate and churn the soil a bit, making it healthier for all the organisms within as well as the grasses.
- Between the tearing up, churning up, and eating down of grasses, the pasture is left in a healthy, growing state, which prevents wildfires, flooding, erosion, and other problems often associated with abandoned, overgrown, bare, and/or unhealthy pastures.
Benefits to the animals include:
- Animals always have fresh grass and forage to eat, increasing weight gains and access to nutrient-rich plants.
- Animals do not graze manure-soiled grounds, which prevents re-ingestion of parasites.
- Wild animals usually graze in groups, which creates a competitiveness among them, resulting in faster eating. This also increases nutrient consumption.
One study I saw showed that one season of mob-stocking (large-group intensive grazing) a large open area with a large group of sheep for a short period of time, resulted in a 50% increase in forage the next year. That’s pretty incredible if you think about it!
Because God has designed nature to work a certain way, to the benefit of all, we wanted to model after the natural order of things. One of the big plans we had in mind for raising grass-fed animals on Red Gate Farm was the concept of rotational grazing. We studied Joel Salatin, Alan Nation, and other livestock managers who practiced intensive grazing and rotational grazing techniques. Everyone we studied did it a little differently, ensuring there was no, single, “right” way to do it, but there were some points to consider that were pretty standard to get the most benefit:
- Animals eat the best, most palatable forages the first day, and each day thereafter the quality of the feed decreases a bit.
- Animals graze best with competition to push them. We needed more than one animal.
- Forage is most evenly grazed with a selection of animals, as each species tends to prefer different plants.
- It takes most fly larvae about 4-7 days to hatch in the manure. It takes most intestinal parasites 1-3 weeks to hatch and need a new host in order to continue the life cycle. Therefore, if possible, the animal should be moved from a grazed area before 4 days to avoid the worst of the flies, and preferably not return until after 3 weeks to prevent re-infestation of parasites.
- Grass takes 2-4 weeks (depending on the season, temperature, and rainfall) to go from an immature (freshly grazed) state back to a healthy, nutrient rich, “adolescent” state. Re-graze too early, and you risk damaging the plant permanently because it is too immature. Re-graze too late, and the plant may reach maturity and be less palatable.
Based on what we learned, we came up with a plan. Again, everyone does it differently, but the following is what we do.
While cows, horses, and hogs can be fenced in with a single strand of electric wire, this is not the case with goats. Due to the fact we were planning a variety of animals of all sizes and some with reputations for escape (i.e., goats!), we decided to first fence our perimeter with a solid, 2×4 woven wire fence with wood fence posts. Good fences make good neighbors, and we do live in a neighborhood of mostly retired folks looking for the quiet life and a nice garden sans the neighbors’ loose livestock.
Then, inside our roughly 7-acre pasture perimeter fence, we subdivided. Now, this was our biggest concern. We weren’t sure (and still aren’t) how to best graze our limited acreage with as many animals as we plan. Of course, it forced us to get more efficient with our animals, as we had absolutely no room for extras. To get an idea, we first used electric poultry netting to train the animals, and moved it around for a couple weeks to get an idea how much forage they ate in a 24-period. We then calculated their consumption, averaged it for almost-year-round grazing, and set up semi-permanent paddocks that are roughly 80 feet x 90 feet. This gave the animals room to move around and frolic a bit, avoid bullies, and still have plenty to eat. After more experimenting–mostly in an effort to figure out how to keep the goats in the paddocks (little escaping stinkers, they are!), we settled on 3 wires. The top strand is a highly visible white poly-rope, while the bottom 2 strands are standard galvanized electric wire. You can also see the portable shelters here. I will do another post on those later.
Once the paddocks were set up, we stocked one with animals. Talk about a variety of complimentary species!
Our goal is to rotate every day by next spring. Right now, however, we don’t have all the animals we intend to have next year, and we are at the end of the spring growth, so the paddocks last my animals 2 days. I am literally building a paddock on each move day. Some graziers roll out a line and set up a new paddock in about 15 minutes. With our setup, though, I don’t have time to do that long term, I’m not able to move my electric wire charger around as much, the goats don’t pay attention to a single wire anyway, and my watering system is not set up yet. For those reasons, I decided to set up more permanent (but easily removable) paddocks, with a 10 foot alleyway down the middle of rows to make moving critters and water easier. This setup actually gives me an extra paddock in the alleyway itself. Whether the grass will continue to grow there long term, I don’t know, but for now, it is very useful.
One of my favorite parts of this whole system is looking back at “yesterday’s” paddock when we move the animals to a fresh pen. Moving is simple. I simply drop the wires between pens, call the animals, and they have already learned that fresh forage awaits! The next photo was taken after the animals had been on a paddock for 48 hours. The brownish line down the middle is where I used a trimmer to remove growth under the wire. The short grass on the left is the grazed paddock, and the long grass on the right is the new, ungrazed paddock.
Joel Salatin always says that if it’s done correctly, you will see a “quilt-square” type effect, where each square of paddock is in a different stage of growth. I think we’ve almost got it!
If everything goes correctly, then we will raise all our cows on this lush grass, which should be become healthier, less weedy, and more nutrient-dense with each passing season. The goats are also grazed on this, supplemented with only a bit of grain at milking time. What I didn’t go into here, but you can see evidence of in the 3rd and 4th photo is that our portable chicken layer coop follows about 4 days behind the other animals, so the birds can pick through all the manure, scatter it into the soil, and eat all the bug larvae and hatching parasites. This is such a neat system, and so far, I am really liking it. I will be tweaking it a bit here and there over the next year or so, I’m sure, but this gives you an idea what we are doing now.
Boy, when people ask what we farm, I am trying to come up with a good answer….”I grow soil (or grass)” just causes more questions. “I raise livestock the old-fashioned way” just gets a mis-understanding nod. “I use a polycultural symbiosis to raise a myriad of species on lush silvopasture” sounds like I’m really smart, but results only in blank stares. Thus, “We have a little God-sufficient homestead, where we grow what we can for our family and sell the excess” is my current one. It seems to be widely accepted so far.