Rotational Grazing


A couple of years ago, I stumbled on an idea that was so brilliant, it was almost unbelievable.  Here at Red Gate Farm, we try to house and manage our animals as naturally as possible.  That includes our horses.  As is the case with most horse owners, we had the idea in our heads that the most “natural” way to manage our horses was by keeping them out on our beautiful pastures, and rotating the pastures regularly to simulate the way wild herds move.  We were so excited to finally have such a beautiful pasture to keep our horses.

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Within months of weaning them onto the pasture, the problems started.  Fevers, abscesses, sole bruises, laminitis, hoof rings, thrush, and more.  Within a year, my work horses were lame more than they were sound.  We consulted with vets, farriers, draft experts, and draft owners.  I read books, researched, and could not figure out the problem.  At the experts’ advice, we fed expensive supplements and high-quality hay when not on pasture.  We finally resorted to shoeing, just to keep the boys working–we are a horse-powered farm after all.  Mind you, I have owned and/or trained horses for almost 20 years, with a few years off here or there.  In those 20 years, I have housed horses in stalls, dry paddocks, stalls with runs, and almost every option available.  I had never had a single issue of unexplained lameness, never an abscess, and never had to shoe a horse.  For a while, I suspected it was an issue limited to draft genetics, but then, one day, our new mustang came up lame as well.  She was as sound as any mustang I’d ever worked with, so this truly baffled me.  Then, it occurred to me.  In my previous years of owning horses, I had always lived in the desert, on sandy soils, or in the Rocky Mountain areas–none of which had lush, green grass.  Usually, the horses lived in stalls or dirt paddocks, and the few times they had access to fresh pasture, it was thin, short, weedy, overgrazed, low-sugar, rough forages, common to many boarding stables around the country.  I realized the biggest change in our horse management was the new, rich pasture.  Furthermore, it occurred to us that the few places in our nation that do NOT have herds of wild horses include the central midwestern region or states with lush forages.  Even the herds that live along the east coast live on sandy beaches and islands.  We were convinced this was the culprit.  We didn’t want to stall the horses, and I didn’t have a dirt paddock large enough to keep several horses.  Thus, we quickly threw together an electric wire paddock on a portion of our gravel driveway to buy us some time.  The photo shows the horses sporting their ridiculously pricey fly sheets, as one of the downsides of confining was that they could no longer escape the vicious and persistent horse flies here.

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Meanwhile, I continued researching the best option for permanent housing.  I stumbled upon a great study of wild horse herds, and the research resulted in a domestic-horse management concept called ” Paddock Paradise.”  Essentially, it was designed by farrier and wild-horse expert Jamie Jackson to simulate the diet, eating habits, herd dynamics, and movements of the wild horses.  First, the horses are removed from free-choice pasture, and put on a diet of low-sugar, high-roughage hay.  Ideally, the sugar content is less than 10%.  Then, rather than stalls, runs, or small paddocks, the horses are given a track to live on.  Similar to a racetrack, the track is designed in such a way as to encourage movement and stimulation of the horse.  Many build the track around the perimeter of their pasture, while some zig-zag  or meander the track through their terrain.  Most tracks are some form of continuous loop, but others dead end into a wide area and force the horses to turn around.  Either way can work.  Most of the track is narrow–about 10-15 foot wide.  It may get a bit narrower in some areas, and wider in others, but for the most part, that standard width encourages forward movement.

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Our little herd traveling from their water station to one of the hay stations.  This section of track is 15 feet wide–our standard for most of the track.

Then, “stations” are set up along the track.  There is a water station, a hay station, a mineral station, and in the case of long tracks, there may be several of each.  You can also get creative.  There can be “stations” for rolling and lounging, obstacles, water crossings, different surfaces along the track, and more.  The imagination is the limit, but the idea is to keep the horses moving to meet their needs–just like horses in the wild.

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By using a high electric line, it still allows the horses to graze a little, but not enough to cause health troubles. One extra benefit….a nicely grazed strip means I never have to trim around my fence posts!

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One of our”obstacle” sections, where the horses learn to pick up their feet to cross over the logs along this stretch of track.

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This area of track can be closed off to double as a round pen where I can train as desired. Otherwise it stays open with the track passing through, and the horses selected it as their favorite rest and rolling area. Notice there is no manure in this area, even though they have had access to it for over a year (we have NEVER cleaned the manure in that year!).

In our case, we eliminated the expensive supplements, switched to the low-sugar hay, eliminated the sugary grains (oats only for the working horses), and moved the horses into the track.  The mysterious fevers and sudden bouts of lameness stopped immediately.  Within 2 months, the hooves began looking different, and within 4 months, we were able to remove their shoes for standard farm work.  With regular trims, the hoof flares began disappearing, the cracks began growing out, and the thrush and white line issues became almost non-existent.  After a year, the only issue we really dealt with was occasional sole tenderness when we worked the horses on sharp gravel, which made sense considering most of their track was our wet clay soils (too much moisture results in softer soles and hooves).

Other benefits we have seen include a change in herd dynamics.  The “herd” traveled together along the track, established a predictable routine, designated bathroom areas (known as “stud piles” in the wild) for manuring, and our horse who NEVER laid down previously began laying down to rest on occasion.

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Moving as a herd along the track.

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In the lower left corner, you can see one of the herd’s designated “stud piles” for manuring. This photo was taken over a year after putting the horses in this track, and we have NEVER cleaned the manure. Notice, however, that there is no manure anywhere else in the photo. The horses can be seen resting in the shade of the trees at the far end.

I had several concerns when we first opted to try it out.  I was very concerned about one of our horses, Bud, losing condition.  He was atypical of most drafts, in that he was a “high-maintenance” horse or “hard-keeper.”  He required almost twice the grain and hay of the other drafts, and it seemed I was always fighting to get him to gain weight.  When our work season really got busy, we had to increase his feed further, and he still looked a bit thin with ribs showing within a couple months.  I wasn’t confident this new system would work well for him.  Boy, was I wrong!  As it turned out, I was always battling adding a fat layer to him.  The increased movement caused him to muscle up, and improved his metabolism.  That’s about the only way I can explain it.  He has looked awesome every since, despite the fact his work load has more than doubled from that first year!

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Physical condition is excellent to due to the increased movement.  This mustang is a bit on the pudgy side, in fact, but her muscle development has given her a much broader body type compared to most domesticated mustangs.

Our first big “test” of the conditioning came the following spring.  Every spring, we take the horses to an annual “plow day,” where teamsters from several states come together to enjoy plowing fields with their teams of horses.  The downside of spring plowing is the plowing is one of the toughest jobs you can ask a horse to do physically, and this particular event tends to be right at the end of winter, when the horses are in their worst “winter” condition–otherwise known as fat and out of shape!  That spring, however, was different for us.  Due to personal circumstances, we had been unable to work the team at all for over 2 months.  As usual, we saw teams needing breaks after just 1/2 hour, and stopping completely after about 2-3 hours of plowing.  With just quick pauses to catch their breath, however, our team was still going strong after 4 hours, and hadn’t even broken a sweat!  And for those who are familiar with horse-plowing, my team was pulling a 14-inch sulky plow, dropped about 8 inches in!  I truly was surprised and even amazed at their condition.

GPS tracking studies have shown that horses living on tracks situated along the perimeter of averaged sized pastures (roughly 1-5 acres), can move significantly more than when housed on pasture.  Of course, the longer the track, the more that can increase.  Although horses can still be turned out into the pasture for periodic grazing, the time should be limited to no more than 30 minute periods of time, unless your pasture is very sparse or weedy.  Lush pastures should be limited to about 15 minutes.

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A sketch of our current Paddock Paradise track, which is situated along the perimeter of our 6 acre pasture. Since we no longer use the pasture for significant horse grazing, it is now used to produce small amounts of hay and to graze our grass-fed cattle and pasture-based poultry.

A few other benefits of track housing is that horses do not get bored, and thus do not develop boredom-related behavioral issues such as cribbing, pawing, pacing, and general crankiness.  I do not have to “lunge” or “get the spunk out” of my horses before riding, as they are already exercised and ready to go, both mentally and physically.

So, with all the good that comes from a system like this, could there be a negative side to it?  The answer is “Yes,” though I have only found one downside.  When horses are allowed to live in a herd setting, with increased movement and natural environments, injuries are bound to happen.  Scrapes, dings, nicks, lumps, bumps, bite marks, and chewed-on hair have become quite normal for our horses.  Think of it like children….you can keep them confined all day and protect them from injury, or you can let them out to play at the risk of scraped knees and elbows.  Same principle applies here.  It isn’t terribly unsightly, but it is a fact that might not go over well in a show-barn.  However, in our case, the mental and physical benefits we have observed in our horses make every little scar totally worthwhile.

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Some lumps, bumps, and dings one of our team showed up to breakfast with one morning.

Now that we have used our Paddock Paradise for over a year, we hope to never have to return to any other way of managing horses!  I cannot express to you all the incredible benefits we have seen.  Our Amish friends, whose livelihood depends on their horses, have watched as our horses have changed over time, and they are even considering trying it now.  If you have your own property, I highly encourage you to consider using this system.  If, however, you are stuck at a boarding stable, I encourage you to talk to the stable manager.  Show them this post.  I also wrote an article about it that was published in “Rural Heritage” magazine.  Boarding stables around the world have found success with this system.  It just works.  We purchased an “easy-keeping” little mini horse at one point who formerly ate about 1/8 flake of hay a day while house in a dray paddock, and was still roly-poly fat!  We put him on track, and despite having free-choice access to hay 24/7, he lost the weight and muscled up, thanks to the increased movement!  If you have easy-keeping ponies, hard-keeper horses, geriatric horses, rescues needing rehab, you name it…..you may have to modify slightly to begin with, but ultimately, I’d be willing to bet they would thrive on this system!  There are just too many personal testimonies out there to suggest otherwise.

We are actually in the process of building our 2nd Paddock Paradise now.  We are moving the track to our back acreage, so we can increase the length and the things they are exposed to.  Our new track will be longer, have water crossings, steep hills, long stretches for galloping, more hard surfaces (and less clay), and more!  We hope to move the horses in before the end of the year.  It requires a good bit of land clearing, which is taking time, but we are making progress.  There you have it!

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I figured it was time for a little update on our pigs.  

The girls are in their 3rd paddock rotation at this point.  They have not shared this one, so they’ve done the majority of clean up by themselves, and it is quite impressive, if I do say so.  Here is a photo of the land.  When we first put them in, the brush went up to about 3 feet from the fence, and even then, the space right beside the fence was covered in poison ivy, weeds, and vines.  Since this is a major traffic area for the girls, as they run alongside each person walking or driving down the street, hoping for a hand-out (they never get one, they just always hope!), they have really cleared the brush back away from the fence.  

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Yesterday, I decided to get an estimate on their weights.  I used a method I learned from Walter Jeffries over at Sugar Mountain Farm.   To summarize, you measure from the crown of the head, right between the ears, straight down the spine to the tail head, right where the tail attaches to the body.  That gives you the length measurement (L).  Then, you measure the girth, wrapping a string or tape all the way around the rib cage, right behind the front legs.  That gives you a girth measurement (G).

Then, you multiply:  L x G x G and divide by 400.  

I have no idea where the 400 comes from.  In any case, though, I came up with a weight of 117 and 128 lbs, roughly.  Supposedly, this method is accurate on roaster and finisher pigs to within a few pounds.  

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So, based on my research, compared to commercial hybrid hogs on commercial feed, mine are about 2/3 to 1/2 the weight they should be (depending on the source).  Compared to pure-bred, pasture-raised hogs not on commercial feed, however, they seem to be right on par.   I contacted Walter at Sugar Mountain Farm directly, and he said their weight sounds perfectly normal, and he would expect them to almost double in the next 2-3 months.  He explained they really seem to pack on the pounds in the end.  

In any case, this has been a fun experiment.  The pigs have been the lowest-maintenance animal on the farm by far.  They have required absolutely NO clean up, and in fact, have cleaned up the land they were on just as we had hoped.  All we’ve really done is supplement them almost once a day with excess milk and organic kitchen scraps, and on occasion, organic rolled grains.  

The low financial inputs into raising them has taught us that it would be worthwhile to raise our own on just forage and excess milk, even with the risk of decreased gains by slaughter time.  It’s clear why the hog is popular as a good source of meat and income, even for the poorest in some nations.  They seem to thrive so easily.

Due to the fact that we are hoping to sell one of these girls, however, I would like to see a bit more gain.  Therefore, I am going to increase the milk they are receiving with milk I have been stockpiling in the freezer, as well as begin offering free-choice rolled grains and organic corn on a more regular basis.  It won’t be full time, but as close as I can get, as the organic, non-GMO versions can be hard to come by around here.   I use rolled grains instead of whole grains due to increased digestibility.  They will continue to have full access to their forage and woodland paddock until slaughter time.  In the event the weather turns bad first, they will get all the hay they can eat.  

So far, I have really enjoyed raising these girls.  Minimal inputs with seemingly good outputs if their gains continue well.  They are fun, and quite a different experience than other livestock I’ve dealt with.  I am really looking forward to those hams and bacons, though!

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Check out those hams! Still a ways to grow, but looking good so far!

We have a new, temporary addition to the farm.

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His name is “Red Bull.”  Pretty original, huh?  I didn’t name him.  He came already named.  His owner is the breeder I bought my Lowline cows from, and the price included a breed back to a bull of my choosing.  He has been working on a Red Lowline line, and insisted this was one of his best, most gentle bulls.  Originally I had planned to send my girls back to his farm to be bred, but he kept insisting this bull is a sweetheart.  Seeing as how I don’t handle the cows much anyway since they prefer to be left alone, I finally agreed.  He dropped him off, and they all became instant friends.

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I estimate his weight around 1000 lbs or so.  He isn’t that tall, but he is beefy!  I am VERY respectful of him, and gentle or not, I have no desire to approach him.  I never turn my back to him.  So, you can imagine the pride I felt yesterday when I had to single-handedly herd all 5 (2 cows, 2 steers, 1 bull) from our front forest pasture, back to their normal grazing paddock, all the way down by the house.  That’s about 1/4 mile of walking, with nothing but a buggy whip standing between me and him!  Thankfully, he was indeed a good boy.  It probably helped that Tiffany, his girlfriend in the photo above, wound up being in heat.  I didn’t realize it until we were about 1/2 way across the pasture, and he mounted and happily did his thing.  He refused to leave her side, and I certainly didn’t care to argue about it.  As long as they kept moving in the direction I asked, we were all happy.

Now, I just have to wait until Holly gets bred, and he will go back home to the breeder’s house.  In the mean time, my grass got a little long while the cows were in the front forest paddock, so I am going to use him for all he’s worth to eat it back down so I don’t have to mow.

S decided we should raise meat birds this year.  Since we’ve lived in the higher altitudes of CO for the last few years, where cornish hybrids don’t survive well, we have only raised heritage type breeds so far.  The problem with them, though, is they eat.  And I have to feed them for about 6 months to get any actual meat out of them, and even then, they dress out to about half the carcass weight of a cornish hybrid.

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So, as much as I am not thrilled about the hybrid versions, I wanted some actual meat with really big, juicy breasts to make the effort worth while this year.  Due to their growth rate, they also only have to be fed for 6-8 weeks and then they are ready to harvest.

Source: Internet Stock Photo

Source: Internet Stock Photo

To encourage good grazing and reduce their consumption of organic chicken feed a bit, spread manure, and decrease the stink and maintenance required from these birds, I decided to house them in a portable chicken tractor.  After researching several versions, I decided to go with a type based on the model used by Polyface Farms.

I took some scrap lumber S had cut with his lumber mill (so it is untreated), and cut it into 2×2 boards, each 6 foot long.  Then I cut 8 2×2 pieces 30 inches long.

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I assembled these to make a 6 foot long x 6 foot wide x 30 inch high frame.  Then I cut and installed braces for the corners out of scraps, most of which were around 1×1.5 inches.  Finally, because this unit will be dragged across pasture on a daily basis, I also put larger braces around the top section, just to give some extra stability (though I forgot to take a photo of that part).

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I should mention that the original intent was to have a top-open panel, but I didn’t think through the 30″ tall really well, and it wound up far too tall to conveniently work in the tractor by bending over.  So, since the chickens are primarily M’s job anyway, I decided at the last minute to build her a little door.  It simply required one additional 30 inch “stud” in the frame, and then I used more scraps to build a little door.  I just used a simply hook-and-eye closure for the door.

The door.  Look on the top, and you can see a large top brace I put in and forgot to photograph.

The door. Look on the top, and you can see a large top brace I put in and forgot to photograph.

Then I installed all the chicken wire, using staples and U-nails, followed by the galvanized roofing and siding.  I used barn roof screws with neoprene washers to install the metal.

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To ease the job of transporting a bit, I installed an eye-hook on each front corner, with a rope tied to each to help a single person lift it.

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I also installed a bike hook on each rear corner, which made a lovely handle-of-sorts so a single person could easily lift a back corner and stick a skid or whatever underneath.

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Finally, I had ordered (only because I didn’t have time to hunt down the individual parts, though it would probably save a bit of $$ if you have time) a 3-nipple gravity-fed chicken waterer, connected to a 5 gallon bucket that just sits on top of the tractor.

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The chicks seem to love all the open space to roam.  They are only 2 weeks old, so technically a little young to be out yet, but since our temps are over 90 in the day right now, they seem fine.  I have a heat lamp tied up in the corner that we still use at night, though, as they do get a bit chilled at night without it.  In addition, due to their age and size, we put them on freshly mowed pasture, so they don’t strain their legs trying to manuever through tall grasses, and if there is a threat of rain, we pack straw or hay in the sheltered area, to ensure they have dry bedding to climb up on and get off the damp ground.

The yellow chicks are the cornish cross meat birds.  The other colors are our replacement layer pullets.  They will be added to the chicken coop when they get big enough, which will also give the meat birds room to grow in the tractor.

The yellow chicks are the cornish cross meat birds. The other colors are our replacement layer pullets. They will be added to the chicken coop when they get big enough, which will also give the meat birds room to grow in the tractor.

I actually like the design.  All the scraps I used were hard wood, though, and once the siding was added, it wound up quite heavier than expected.  A shorter size and less dense wood would have been lighter, but I wanted the tractor to be versatile in its use.  In this size, I have the option of raising turkeys, weaning goat babies, letting rabbits out to exercise, or whatever else won’t push through my chicken wire.  I still need to build skids for it to move on, and will just be dragging it in the mean time, with a little help from the kiddos.  The birds seem really happy, though, running all over, going from sun to shade at will.  M even opened the door and let them out yesterday to graze outside the tractor, which they seemed to enjoy.

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We are seeing results from our “Forest Hogs” already, and I am impressed.  When they were just 9 weeks old, we turned the pigs out into a roughly 1/2 acre section of woodland, with a small section of pasture adjoining it.  Here is what the land looked like when we turned them out: (Notice the fallen spruce tree in the center to give you reference).

The land before pigs

The land before pigs

Just 2.5 weeks later, I took this picture from the same spot:

The land after pigs

The land after pigs

Now granted, they had a little help.  We turned 2 cow/calf pairs out with the pigs randomly, for a total of 7 days in the forest paddock.  The donkey was out there for less than 2 days, and the goats for maybe 2 days.  Although certainly not necessary, I figured all the animals would create some  “mob” effect, which essentially creates natural competition and encourages them to eat more and faster.  They’re just like my 4 and 5 year old boys, each of whom are convinced it is sole duty to NOT allow the other to eat more of some treat. Because so many different species are involved, their natural grazing/browsing habits complement each other.  After 2.5 weeks, the brush was eaten from the height of the cows’ backs and down.  There is almost no green foliage left.  The next picture shows 2 sections of the 2.5 acre forest lot, with our electric fence netting dividing it into smaller sections.  The right side of the photo used to look just like the left side.  After 2.5 weeks, the pigs were moved into the left side paddock to eat it down as well.

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Here is another view from the adjoining pasture area.  The foreground shows the grazed down paddock and pasture, while the background shows a future paddock to be grazed.  Notice the difference in the height of the grass, which shows where the electric fence ran.  The animals graze right to the electric netting.

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As you can see, they don’t just eat forage either.  Pretty much everything that grows is considered edible.  This photo shows the electric netting again, dividing the already grazed pasture portion of the paddock on the left, and the new pasture on the right.

Happy pigs!

Happy pigs!

I have seen enough photographic evidence to leave me no doubt that if I left the pigs longer, or if I decreased the size of the pen, or if I fed them less supplements, that they would literally clear that paddock down to bare earth.  I have studied a number of pasture-pig farmers who do it that way, allowing the pigs to tear down everything, and then the farmer rebuilds his pasture from scratch.  I decided I didn’t want to do that, though.  I preferred to have the pigs “massage” the land, clean it up a bit, spread some fertilizer, and then move on.  Then, if I have time, I can go in and manually whack down the remaining sapling and brush stems OR I can rotate the pigs through again in a few months.  Waiting a while gives the slightly over-grazed pasture time to replenish itself while also allowing all the accumulated manure to break down and be absorbed in the soil without being overloaded.  By the time the pigs will move through again, they will likely be twice as big, and therefore eat twice as much in the same time frame.

Feeding time brings the girls running and squealing "wee-wee-wee" all the way to the milk bucket!

Feeding time brings the girls running and squealing “wee-wee-wee” all the way to the milk bucket!

Although it isn’t necessary, I have chosen to supplement their forage diet.  In a paddock like this, they eat not only all the leaves and grass, but also bugs, slugs, frogs, leaves, branches, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and more.  Pigs are not just vegetarians.  They are omnivores, and require high protein levels to thrive.   If I raised them strictly on forage, they would likely either take longer to reach an ideal slaughter weight, and/or be much leaner and lighter at slaughter time.  Thus, I have decided to supplement with my excess goat milk.  I sour the milk for 24 hours (apparently the extra probiotics are better for them), mix in some organic rolled cereal grains, leftovers from dinner, anything I want to clean out of the fridge or cabinets, extra eggs (complete with shells), and so on.  They absolutely go crazy over the “slop” concoctions we come up with.  This also means they come running every time they hear us call, in the hopes we are bringing that slop pail along.

Looking for a few scratches behind the ears...

Looking for a few scratches behind the ears…or the slop pail I failed to bring this time.

An additional fact worth mentioning is that pigs are great manure spreaders!  I don’t mean they poop everywhere, either, although they do that as well.  I mean pigs LOVE cow patties as much as chickens.  My chickens have stayed busy rotating through the the main pastures, helping us break down cow patties there, as well as waging war on the Japanese beetle crop in the orchard this summer.  Meanwhile, I am loath to pet the pigs lately, as these warm….no, I mean incredibly, ridiculously, HOT….days have driven the pigs to desperate measures.  They absolutely love to roll in those fresh cow patties.  They roll, plow, dig, spread, you name it.  Although disgusting to watch, it does a great service. It helps the manure break down much faster, and prevents fly larvae from accumulating, and subsequently hatching out of the patties.  That’s always a good thing.

For the sake of my non-farmer readers, though, I took a cleaner picture to close with.  Isn’t she cute?!

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As a follow up on the Rotational Grazing post I did recently, I figured I would do a post regarding the shelters we are using.

First, we needed a layer coop.  There are lots of ideas regarding portable chicken coops out there, so that one wasn’t too difficult.  The greater difficulty was building it cheaply, using as many already-owned supplies as we could.  S succeeded in using the wood and the wagon wheels, though we did have to purchase lightweight roofing (wood would have made it too heavy).

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After the coop was built, it wound up a bit too heavy for one person to move alone.  Since I have to move it every 2 days right now, with plans to move it daily in the future, we decided to utilize our 4 wheeler for the time being.

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I simply lift the front, and cargo strap it to the ATV.

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Strapped in this fashion makes pulling quite simple.  Braking, on the other hand, is a problem, especially when you consider that our pasture is one big rolling hill.  So, I had to find a brake system to keep the coop from running into the ATV.

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All I needed was a willing party and 2 strong legs.  Don’t laugh.  It works quite well, thank you!  JR usually does this job for me, but S helped me on this particular day.  With gas and brakes working, we can now move with no problem.

As a side note, the coop is still far too heavy for my liking.  As a result, we are hoping to reconstruct the floor, and change it from it’s current wood plank construction to 2×3’s and welded wire.  I think it will reduce the weight significantly.  It will likely be a while before I get to that project though, so for now, I will continue using the ATV.

The other shelter was a bit more of a problem for us.  Again, we wanted to use as many already-owned supplies as we could.  We still haven’t come up with a design we like, but what we currently have is a hoop house, re-designed out of our hay-shelter supplies from our Colorado home.  If you study hoop houses, you will quickly see that when intended for anything other than poultry, they must be sturdy enough for animals to lean on and push against.  Cattle panel hoop houses make a great, very strong house–assuming the ends are reinforced somehow.  Otherwise, the panels can potentially collapse and fold up.  We learned the hard way, when our first windy day came along.  Most people use t-posts to reinforce when the shelter is intended to be stationary, but ours was to be portable and built on skids, so we needed another plan.  S put his engineering brain to work and decided to reinforce with a wood A-frame, attached to the panels with screws, fence staples, and hooks.  Since it was intended only for goats originally, he put the center cross beam as low as he could for support.

The cows took over the goat shelter.   I don't even know how that mama cow fit in there, but the goats are NOT happy about it!!

The cows took over the goat shelter. I don’t even know how that mama cow fit in there, but the goats are NOT happy about it!!

The downside of this design is that only short animals can fit in there.  Somehow, our donkey and cows managed to get in, but I suspect they will eventually break down that center support scraping under it like they do.  The other downside of a cattle-panel hoop house is that it is heavy.  We used 2 panels, wood skids and supports, and a heavy duty tarp, and it weighs several hundred pounds.  An upside of panels is that I can easily attach a mineral feeder under the shelter to keep the minerals out of the rain and still easily accessible to the critters.  Because it is on skids, a draft horse could easily move it.  Until we get our horse, though, we use the ATV for this also.

S installed large eye-hooks about 1/3 of the way down each skid on each side, and attached a chain going across the grass from one skid to the other. You can just see the sides of the chain on each side in this photo, one side being just above the bottom goat’s right ear:

IMG_0902There is another chain that loops to the dividing chain, and the second one sits under the front ground support board.  You can see it above coming up out of the grass, just outside the middle of the shelter.  I run the cargo straps through this chain, as close as I can.  When I pull forward, the motion actually lifts the front of the shelter several inches so it slides easier over the grass.

Now the shelter is on skids, so technically doesn’t need wheels, but we were worried about the back center board falling apart as it was dragged over the grass day after day, so we decided to use wheels anyway for the actual move, and just let the shelter rest on the skids when not moving.  In order to do that, we use a standard household dolly with 4 wheels.

dolly

We have a large block of wood that rests between the back board and the end of the dolly, to keep the weight and pull better distributed.

Once everything is set up, I drive the shelter to the next paddock.

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As is usually the case, this is our first trial, and I’m confident there will be many changes as time goes on and we get better at this farming stuff.  This is definitely not our long-term plan….we just don’t know what the long-term plan is yet, so this will have to suffice.

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.

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.  Source: internet stock photo

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.
Source: internet stock photo

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.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

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.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up.  It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up. It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

Once the paddocks were set up, we stocked one with animals.  Talk about a variety of complimentary species!

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves.

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves share a paddock.

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.

A single cow grazed about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

A single cow grazed down about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

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.

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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!

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

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.