Grazing Intensifies

Rain, heat, alfalfa just prior to bloom - our pastures are at their most lush and potent stage right now.

The sheep tend to graze from the top of the plant down, or at least mine do. I’m guessing the top of the plant is the most lush, sweet and palatable. With plants like alfalfa and clover this top plant portion is highly desirable and since both of these plants grow tall in prime conditions they are also easily accessibly to grazing animals. In our pasture right now the ewes hardly have to put their heads down to eat it.

When the sheep move into a new paddock, they sweep it, doing a rather rapid migratory graze, nibbling the top of the plants as they go and being quite selective in choosing alfalfa. If they have a lot of space to graze in, it is a ‘too much of a good thing’ scenario. To manage it we are limiting the grazing space and moving animals frequently. With all animals eating on less space more robust grazing will occur while lessening the risk of any one animal being able to overeat on alfalfa.

It is a matter of finding a balance between grazing for the grass and keeping livestock out of trouble. Moving frequently keeps the animals from overgrazing too severely while still keeping them on the prime quality grass. We want them to maintain a belly full of the best total grazing. We don’t want them forced to eat plants too far down and then moved onto full grown lush stuff again. An even level of grazing and satisfied animals is what we’re after. Simple to write, a little more challenging in practice.

The sheep are currently on a quarter of land (160 acres) that is permanently cross fenced into roughly four, 40 acre paddocks. Within the 40 acre paddocks we are using Electranetting to further subdivide into smaller paddocks. In this manner sheep will eventually graze the entire quarter and then move onto the next.

The division of paddocks made with the electranet are not done according to specific size. Rather we take a best guess at how much space/feed we’ll need and fence according to lay of the land. We’re not after each paddock being ten acres but that each paddock suffice for a days grazing. Some may be too small, some to large; we’ll figure it out as we go.

On the 40 acre paddock we are grazing right now there is a large wetland running through it, plus two more smaller ones. This has provided a great way to subdivide while moving around the water bodies and saves on the netting required for each individual grazing cell. It allows us to set up grazing cells in advance. In the next 40 acre paddock we will be moving to, there is no water bodies or land features to do this with so we will graze in strips across the paddock. This will mean more netting for each cell and greatly reduce how far ahead we can set up.

Black lines indicate fence boundaries
This is a photo from this morning. I’ve marked where the netting runs on the left and right and the perimeter fence along the back. The water completes the front fence boundary.  The left and right side of netting comes down to the wetland and far enough into the water the ewes will not venture around it. We are not electrifying the netting. I’m waiting for the ewes to finish a mornings graze and for the mornings moisture to evaporate before moving them (moving to the left).

Each move requires a round up of lambs to make sure everyone gets across. Young lambs are oblivious to the idea of keeping up with the ewes but the upside is that we are moving such a short distance it’s not terribly difficult to get them there (a stock dog helps :) and this morning Cajun is along for the work). After all the animals are across the water bus and mineral is moved. After the move the netting from the paddock previous to the one just grazed is taken down and set up where needed next. Take a break and repeat in twelve or twenty four hours.

In the next photo the flock has been moved. The little arm of water travels to the left and pinches the flock off at the edge of the photo, where there is also a short stretch of netting.

Black lines indicate fence boundaries
Once we are through with the lush season of grass growth we’ll relax on subdividing the 40 acre parcels. We could keep it up but I do have a limit as too how much of my summer season I want to spend moving portable fencing. I’m an advocate of rotational grazing and paying attention to livestock affect on grass, but I can’t claim to be a staunch practitioner of any of the intensive grazing programs that are out there. For me it boils down to what works best overall for land, animal and my enjoyment of what I do.

I need to find someone who is passionate about grass management to maximize the grass potential here.

Kelpie Notes

Cajun has been accompanying me on the pasture checks in the evening. After a spring of mostly small paddock work and training, it is time to stretch him out again as we were doing in the late winter when night penning.

This past week I had him round up sheep for a move. He is really beginning to travel some distance. He also searches for sheep as he casts showing more of a mustering style of work, rather than gathering.  I have not taught him this, indeed, I’m not sure I know how to, although perhaps using him in the situations I do has led him to try it.  And he would not try it, if he did not feel it was a natural thing to do, so to that end it is in his makeup.

Cajun (l), Gibson (m), BJ (r)
For me, no trial set up, or training regime, or practice can mimic the sheer pleasure of watching a black and tan dog sweep the prairie, glide over a hill, stand up to have a look ahead and continue traveling in search of sheep. Or to see him come around, spot sheep, slow up while lowering his whole body and push them up to the flock.

He has surprised me the last couple of times out by showing a degree of patience with lambs I did not think he was capable of. Perhaps the lambs being older is attributing to this. If surprised by a lamb in the grass or when he does lose patience he has a striking ability to pounce on lambs and hold them down but this is not a work trait I would like to encourage.

When out on the prairie my voice is lost to him, my whistles are are not as crisp and clear as they need to be in order to be sorted out by the dog at long distances. He is very much on his own and I if I had to guess I would say he loves the feeling as much as I love watching it.

The space is vast, the terrain is hilly, and the grass is tall. While it may sound like simply gathering sheep it is no small feat that sheep are found and gathered at all. The dogs cannot see ahead, they are often blind casting or heading into valleys and temporarily working blind. Being in the tall grass it is more difficult for them to keep their bearings but they always manage to. They’re hearing is also compromised by the rustling of grass. While seemingly simple, it is challenging work.

Gibb is now 10 months old and BJ is 7 months. Gibb is showing a very nice sense of balance and keeping things together. When I work him on groups of 20 plus he keeps an eye everywhere and is beginning to learn about moving less in order to do more (that just rolling his shoulders and catching the outside eye is enough to tuck in animals versus traveling over to tuck them in). I love that about him.  He does not have a clean break away when first casting around sheep or when splits happen. When we get into wrecks, he ramps it up a notch and his tail goes high. Time and maturity and preventing wrecks in the first place will solve that.

BJ is more odd to me in that her style of work is different to Cajun and Gibb, who are brothers and show similarities.  She tends to hold her sheep tightly and causes splits, which she enjoys. She is a sensitive dog too. She does not show the same intensity the boys do. I have decided to leave her be for awhile and pick up again when she’s older.

The Latest Find

This is the latest find while on one of my pasture treks.

Thinking only of the animals I am familiar with seeing around my area of prairie, at first it did not dawn on me what I was looking at. Then, realizing I was looking at the teeth of a predator, I knew what I had. It gave me chill.

The jaw bone of this wild boar is well weathered so it has been some time since the animal laid down and died here. The bone has a different feel than finding new antler sheds, both because of it’s age and because of what  the bones of a wild predator represents to me. A moose antler is a wonder, a boar jaw feels a bit more untamed.  

Land and space feel a particular way and finding old bones somehow brings that sense back to me. I think I know my land, but really all I know is what I visually see and how that directly relates to me. The hilltops with the best views, the favorite sitting stones, water logged areas, prime brush areas for sheltering sheep, where the lambs like to play, how the grass grows. Yet there is so much that goes on unseen, unheard and unknown; perhaps there are animals passing through while I sit here typing.

Finding the bones of animals that have crossed here unobserved makes me think of how vast and unrevealed this place is. Of just how much land we sit on. Lately while I walk dogs I find myself looking up and out, and feeling amazed that two people could possess all this. Is it too much? Just what is the purpose of it all? How much more can it be?

Working Dogs

I use my stock dogs on a regular basis to work sheep and I am lucky to have them and they are lucky to have this life, even though, to this point, the work we do is pretty basic and pretty ‘loose’ (gathering, penning, trailing a mob, sorting sheep). I have yet to train the skills for a top notch chore dog (working singles, working the race, backing, real mustering, shedding). In part because I did not realize what is possible with a dog and in part that I lack the skills to do so effeciently.

Yet after working with Cajun last evening, out on the pasture, I know I have not even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of working dogs and my relationship with them. 

These dogs are so much more than any previous type of training method or dog activity ever made them out to be. I have an entirely different outlook on dogs and what it is to train and work with them than I did when heavily involved in other dog activities. Although stock dog work is occasionally so frustrating it brings me to tears, this outlook is far more intuitive and tantalizing. Working with dogs as I do now has shed light on all I didn’t know and how much there is still to learn.

Lush Grass and Bloat

We made a poor pasture move. We held the ewes on a paddock for about a day and a half too long.
The ewes gave us a clear sign they were ready to move yesterday but with other things on the go, we decided to ‘just leave it and do it tomorrow’. 

It was such an innocent decision. There is so much grass at their feet it is easy to be lulled into the idea of holding them to graze it just a little more. 

This afternoon we took the tractor out to pull the water bus through the low lying wet spots in order to catch it up with the sheep and we moved the flock.

Tonight we picked up a dead ewe - she died from bloat. There is no way to be sure she would not have bloated even if we had moved the flock yesterday but any dead animal catches our attention and causes us to ponder the choice we made.

It’s June and the grass is prime. Since it has been raining so frequently we haven’t been able to avoid the wet conditions on most moves. If our pastures did not contain plant species that cause risk of bloat we might get away with just leaving it and moving tomorrow (provided the animals are satiated, not hungry). The grass will pay the price for the late move but the animals probably won’t bloat.

Our pastures contain alfalfa and a lot of it. We have to move frequently, preferably just prior to the animals telling us it’s time, and always when they are full. Even then, we can lose the odd ewe who can’t stop herself from eating too much fresh alfalfa. Our bloat risk is compounded by our terrain. It is easy for ewes with very full bellies from gorging on new grass, to become cast on a hillside depression. This risk of casting is greater prior to lambing when the ewes are very heavy with lamb in their bellies.

We can’t go backward and get that ewe back to life. So we go forward, lesson learned; we’ll be picking up the pace on our pasture moves once again.

Of Grass and Rain

As the grass grows thicker and taller along the fence lines, the electric fence loses its power. Wily ewes (the ewes we should have culled last year) figure this out and begin to crawl through the cross fencing in search for fresh alfalfa. All the grass at their feet doesn’t compare to untouched alfalfa in the next paddock.

With all the rain we have been receiving the grass is growing rapidly. It is tall and watery. To us it looks lush and plentiful and we are tempted to hold the sheep in a paddock longer, but for the ewes it loses some of its appeal. It does not have what they need. They want to move on.

The tall grass is challenging for the dogs. The guardian dogs lose sight of the sheep and especially the lambs, in the tall grass. The tall grass makes it advantageous for predators to sneak up on sleeping ewes and lambs. The stock dogs see sheep from their vantage point on the Ranger as we approach, however, completely lose sight of them once on the ground.

We are unable to move our water bus to the next quarter of pasture as we cannot cross at the gateway due to standing water in a low spot. Water for the sheep is not a big problem with all the moisture in the grass but when they do need a drink, the ewes are forced to water from the wetlands until we can move the bus again.

We are just entering the summer season but the meadow brome grass is already heading out. Unless we find a way to graze or cut all the grass we will have an excess of standing residue again this year. I’m torn about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  On one hand, it is good for the soil in the long term as it will result in organic matter eventually, on the other, I wonder if it is too much residue for too many successive years.

The ewes are increasing their uptake of mineral, particularly salt, perhaps something attributed to the lesser nutrition in the grass. The lambs are learning what mineral is and where to get it, from the ewes.

Floating Along

It might be time to build an ark.

Things are beginning to float away, we have received so much rain.

There is plenty of grass again, so there is no worry about running short, however with all the moisture it will be very watery and without the nutritional punch our typically dry prairie land can deliver.  Something we have to keep in mind for the flock.

As I travel around checking animals it looks like they are all wearing the same forlorn when-will-it-be-dry-again look. I keep expecting to find the ewes hunkered in particular bushes but they are not taking shelter. Most often they are in the open spaces, grazing. The lambs are doing fine and I suppose the saving grace is that it has remained warm during all the rain.

With the lambs maturing I am once again taking a stock dog with me when I head out in the evening and doing little pieces of work as the opportunities present themselves. The grass is tall and is beginning to become a challenge for the dogs. Last night Jayde’s walk up followed a sheep trail and I think she sniffed out sheep more than she visually saw them. After a lull in stock dog work during lambing it feels good to have the dogs back out with me.

Pseudo Control

In adopting a lifestyle that is intermingled with nature it becomes more and more apparent that I am not in control of the outcome to any circumstances. That, in fact, no one is.

I’m still trying to catch up on docking tails and castrating lambs. We made another attempt at it this week and spent an afternoon setting up portable panels on pasture a day ahead. The next day it took a couple hours, alternating between great frustration and great ease to get the flock gathered and the first pen full of lambs caught. At which point the sky opened up and poured rain on us.

Moving and penning a flock with young lambs is no easy task and having put so much effort into the start and feeling determined to get more than this done (control the outcome), we waited out the thunderstorm and then continued.

We were working on the second pen of lambs when the rain returned, this time without any sign that it would let up. By now we were soaked, cold and frustrated. Finally in a moment of clear thinking, it occurred to us that holding the ewes and lambs while it poured on all of us, because we insisted on a particular outcome (i.e. the job getting done) seemed ridiculous. We would do more harm than good to hold them here and stress them. Best to let them, and us, head for shelter. We hardly made a dint in processing the lambs but we opened the gate, released all the animals and let our mornings hard work go for naught.

On another stream, by opening up the idea to share this place and have it become more than one person can realize it to be, the lack of control is made apparent in a rather substantial way. It is a scary and exhilarating feeling. The challenge is not imposing my own ideals and need for control but to let the idea grow into what it needs to be for the people who are a part of it.

The Start of A Vision

I first shared a version of this in the latest issue of the newsletter Crooked Fences. It’s time to share it here to further spread the desire.

I have a deep affinity for this place and this way of life. For the universal connectivity of it all. A few years ago I started to feel a nudge prodding me to start sharing it. I heeded that nudge and built the ranching-with-sheep website and then began this blog; two obvious ways to share what one is doing and thinking. Today, as I drift through my days, the call to share what is here is still tugging at me, stronger than before.

I have been carrying around a simmering and unspoken vision for this place, knowing that this land, this space, can be so much more than just a sheep ranch with just me on it. That there are far more possibilities here than I alone can undertake and that there are so many options for sharing it.  

What stirred the contents of my vision pot was a recent read of the book "Walk Out Walk On," lent to me by a good friend. Before I was two chapters into the book I bought my own copy. The particular phrase in the book that began heating things up, was "start anywhere, follow it everywhere."

It’s time to share this vision of broader sustainability and begin my journey to find the people to help me build it.

I long to share the uniqueness of this place, to allow it to touch the lives of others like it has touched my own. To have people gather here for rest and recharging, for learning and creating, and for the continuation of sustainable farming and related businesses. To encourage the betterment of land and life through human potential.

I want to give a leg up to other passionate people who long to be on the land but are held back by rising land and start up costs. I want people to co-farm with me, adding their fuel to my fire for a multifaceted, sustainable community farm, thriving with various enterprises and together benefiting the whole.

This sustainable vision is something beyond selling products produced on seperate farms, under an umbrella company name. I want to create a community of farming/gardening/animal enthusiasts who join together on this place to complete their own dreams. Who knows, maybe this even goes beyond farming.

Yes, there are all sorts of details to work out. No, I don't know how to go about accomplishing this or even what it all looks like yet. But I'm okay with not having it all sorted out or having the answers, because maybe you do.

What I do know is that the idea of starting anywhere and following it everywhere, is beckoning me. This blog post is one of the starts.

If you are intrigued or know a person who would be, tell them I am looking for them.

Being Nature

I rise earlier and earlier as the daylight stretches longer. I have been an early riser for so many years that I really don’t know any different. During the spring and summer I head out for a walk early on.

As I walked in the early daylight this AM I wondered if I was up and about even before the Weather was. This morning was so calm, so at ease, it felt as though walking through it was causing ripples. I was far away from worries about sheep and dogs and fencing.

These still moments are so soulfully replenishing. I can feel my energy mix with the energy of the Universe. I am walking and five dogs are buzzing back and forth on the trail so this stillness does not always equate to physically being still, but rather mentally so.

During these mornings I know what it feels like to BE Nature. Not to be IN Nature, or to be surrounded by Nature, or farming WITH Nature, for all of these states still represent some aspect of seperateness from it, but to be one and the same.

This is one of the many indirect gifts I have received as a result of this lifestyle of land and sheep. I feel this centered state more and more often and most easily when the external conditions are right. It is, of course, more difficult when the demands of the day begin arriving, or if people are around since I am so accustomed to being alone. Yet as I become more accepting of this way of being and it becomes more and more familiar it will grow and be there to tap into and to share. And that I look forward to doing. 

Full Morning With Lambs

I have fallen behind in processing lambs. In an attempt to do some catch up I decided to collect the flock to move them into a small paddock and spend the morning catching lambs.

I attempted to use Cajun and Jayde to collect the flock.  But Cajun is still not a dog I can use when working young lambs, and maybe he won’t ever be. He fixates on lambs and moves in on individuals, thus putting stress and pressure on the ewe causing her to fight. Cajun is not a patient dog and he’s quick to fight right back. If I wanted him to catch lambs for me Cajun would do it. He loves to tackle lambs and does so with amazing agility and no harm done. I’m not sure I want to allow that kind of work however. I put him back on the Ranger and tied him in the back.

Jayde does a better job in this case as she doesn’t fixate on lambs; she’d really rather leave lambs altogether. She will put on too much pressure as well but is more settled in her work so I can get her to pause to let the ewe think about moving off. 

I used Jayde for a bit and we got things started. After that I put her on the Ranger too. From there I just worked the group tighter and tighter without the dogs. There are just some circumstances where I make better progress without a dog and pushing up ewes with young lambs is one of them.  

I never did get the flock into the paddock but did get them grouped and by then the lambs were lying down to rest. I was able to walk through and catch a lot of them while Allen, who by now had joined me, kept the group from spreading too far.

It was a full morning and I'm still not caught up with doing all the lambs but did make good headway. In the afternoon I puttered at some tasks that didn't involve sheep. Early this evening we moved the flock. This time however, the ewes were ready for new grass and pretty much moved themselves, following the water bus as it traveled to the next paddock. 

Pasture Moves During Lambing

During lambing the moves are less frequent because they are more time consuming to accomplish. Ewes who have just lambed or who are about to lamb do not want to move. Ewes will stay at their lambing site for several hours. Rather than make them move I let the ewes who have not lambed yet or who have older lambs and are willing to move, drift forward. They are usually eager to go because it means new greens.

I try to organize the lambing paddocks and rotations so that all paddocks are adjacent. When the paddocks are adjacent, I leave the gate open, allowing any ewes who decide to move to be able to catch up with the flock, allowing any ewes who left lambs behind in their haste to get to new grass to come back, and allowing the guard dogs a route to those left behind. There is some risk when leaving small groups behind.

Throughout the following day some of the ewes with lambs will make their way over.  By the end of that next day I will move any ewes who have not moved themselves and close to gate. I don’t like waiting much longer than a full day to complete a move because some ewes will return to lamb in the previous paddock and then we start all over.  I also like the flock to be together in the same paddock to lessen the predator risk to those hanging back on their own.

Another method would be to keep the ewes who have not lambed yet, moving further ahead so they are always seperate from those who are lambing. This takes a fair amount of space and the ability to keep everyone protected when they are spread out. Right now I just feel more comfortable having them together.

Born Again

Yesterday, after a move with the flock, I discovered a lamb with no mom, in the original paddock. In the evening I gave her a drink of milk collected from a ewe who lost her lamb that day and was temporarily paralyzed from the birthing ordeal (she could not rise, so she was very easy to milk out).

I took the lamb up to the new paddock and set her amongst a swarm of ewes for the night. I was still hopeful that mom would realize she left her babe.

During the day today I didn’t notice her. But this evening I spied her curled up in tall grass along the fence line. Still no mom, tired and hungry.

Moments earlier I had watched a ewe have a successful birth.

I scooped up the little orphan and headed to the new mom. The ewe was absorbed in attending to the newborn at her feet and incredibly I was able to get close to her. A deft move by me with the orphan lamb in my left hand, and reaching for the fresh afterbirth and fluid sac trailing from the ewe with my right, and the little girl was soon donning somewhat of a 'born again' look.

The ewe gave a sniff and knocked her over. I made another feeble attempt, this time to hold the ewe and the lamb and get the two of them together. Nobody is in a pen here so it’s me, the ewe and a lot of space for both of them to stay out of reach. It didn't work. 

But I did get more blood/fluid on the lamb and now the ewe was gurgling to the lamb although she still stepped away from it. She was hard to convince. I wasn't going to fuss with them anymore so I got out of the way. Either it would work or it wouldn't.

The ewe became engrossed in attending to her real lamb, who was now up to suck. The orphan was hungry and knew precisely where to find a meal. She dove in to the ewes udder and I watched, elated, as she drank while the ewe fussed over her lamb on the opposite side. The ewe tipped her head over, nuzzled and licked the orphan.... and let her suck.

Whew! Lucky day. Pawning off orphan lambs without a pen to force the ewe and the lamb to be together is rarely successful and therefore worth a celebration. I think I try it at least once every year and at least one time it works for me. This one is off to a good start and after wrestling with the losses this week, I feel a bit born again myself.

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