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Wind Ridge Farm: The Pasture
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The Pasture
A pasture isn't just grass. Grass isn't just grass. If you are raising your animals on pasture, that is their world. You will need to take measures to make sure that it is habitable and sustainable. Most of the traditional concepts about pastures have been advocated and taught by the cattlemen who won The Grange Wars. (What? You never heard of The Grange Wars? I weep for students of American History. Look it up. You'll probably be very surprised.) The result of that conflict was a political campaign contrary to science that claimed that cattle were somehow always and intrinsically better and that the winners of that war knew definitively what a pasture should be. [My personal motto: Tradition is an excuse to not do something better.] Most of what farmers do today is based on the tradition of the winners of The Grange Wars and not science. Don't misunderstand. I like a good steak now and then for variety, but from an efficiency standpoint, there are much better choices than cattle for this part of the world.

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There are a few breeds of cattle that browse but by far most in America are grazers, essentially eating only grasses. The same goes for most horses and most wool sheep. Have you ever seen a horse pasture, or cattle pasture full of weeds? That's because they are grazers. They eat only the grasses. Therefore the weeds slowly take over the pasture, and left alone those grazing animals will eventually starve to death. In comes the farmer to the rescue and brush cuts the field to save the pasture and therefore save the livestock. Hence we have the first traditional myth, that pastures need to be mowed. A much simpler and sustainable plan that requires no mower is to include some browsers. Horse farmers might include a donkey or two, or a zebra if they can find one. Cattlemen could include a few bison, or one of the few browsing breeds of cattle and in the case of cattle, they could use steers if they don't want to deal with interbreeding.

Around here, if the farmer has adequate fencing (notice in my comments above, the inclusion of like sized browsers to go with the grazing livestock; that has to do with ease of fencing,) once in a while they will include a goat. This will accomplish the same task, since the vast majority of goats are browsers. They eat the weeds while the cattle graze. Very rarely will you see cattle with sheep, and again that has to do with the traditional myths that grew out of The Grange Wars that the two species will somehow poison each other.

The Grange Wars were fought between the ranchers of cattle, a grazing animal, and ranchers of wool sheep, also grazing animals. In that scenario, the two species of livestock are in direct competition for food. Sheep will clip off the grasses at a level too short for the cattle to take a bite, so if the cattle were second, they could starve.

In your case, you are not likely to be using public land to pasture your animals so your cattleman neighbor has no right to complain about what your animals eat on your land. You can have cattle with sheep, you just have to watch the numbers and ratio of the two. If the cattle are starving, you probably have too small of an area for the number of animals. If you have primitive sheep or hair sheep who prefer to browse, you'll be able to maintain higher numbers than mixing grazing sheep with cattle. However, don't be confused. Browsers will eat grass. It's just that they consider things like briars, poison ivy, dandelions etc. to be tastier and so eat them first.

Any plant that is grazed too intensively, trampled enough, flooded or dehydrated enough will eventually die. Some tolerate different environmental hazards better than others. Anything in your pasture that the animals will eat and get nutrition from is, "forage". You will want the available forage to be diversified so that if this year it is overly wet, but next year you have a drought, you still have forage for your livestock. Some clovers will spread by rhizomes as well as seed, so if the animals eat all the flowers, the clover can still spread and survive. A mix of grasses with varying water requirements and tolerances to heat can help mitigate bad weather. Your local Agricultural Extension Agent office will be a nice starting point for your research regarding your own locations' conditions. In many locations they will assume cattle if you come knocking, so tell them what livestock and they might steer you to some pasture seed mixes that they wouldn't suggest for cattle including hardier plants. Remember, a pasture doesn't need to be all grass.

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"I need more space!" Well, maybe not, maybe what you mean is that you need more forage. Just as including seeds for things that many consider weeds, like chicory can add additional forage to your pasture. Look up. That's right, I said, "Look Up." You can have a second story of forage in your pasture with trees. The leaves that fall in the pasture can normally be eaten by browsers. Cattle generally won't eat them and so unless you rake the leaves, the drifts of leaves will kill the grass, hence, another Grange War myth, that you need to cut down trees to preserve the pasture. Think of how much surface area of pasture that a tree occupies. If you do all that work to cut down that tree, dig up the stump and plant grass on it, you'll get maybe a couple pounds of hay a year, if that. Trees are three dimensional. Allow that tree to grow, and have animals that will eat the leaves as they fall, and that might be the equivalent of tons of hay in the fall. (Obviously that will depend upon the age and variety of the tree, but no matter what tree, it will be exponentially more than the equivalent space for grass.)

Trees help mitigate weather disasters with wind breaks. They provide shade for your animals when it is hot as well as habitat for song birds many of whom eat bugs. They help clean the air by pulling out pollution and carbon dioxide. In the fall, they drop leaves that the browsers can eat. They can also drop fruit that maybe you don't want, but the animals will. Our sheep make regular trips to the old oak pasture and eat acorns, hickory nuts, maple samaras, [maple samaras: those little helicopter seeds that kids used to play with before video games] Our potbellies will just sit all day in the black walnut grove and munch. Mmmm…walnut fed pork! (Again, check with your Ag Extension, you might have a few native trees with poisonous fruit or leaves). If you want quick shade and livestock edible leaves and seeds from a hardy tree, consider locust trees. They fix their own nitrogen so grow like weeds.

In this same line of thinking, why are you mowing your orchard when you have animals willing to mow it for you? For browsing animals like Soay They will eventually strip the bark of the fruit trees. Potbellies will strip the bark too, just not by eating it. They can girdle the tree by rubbing on it to scratch their backs. In hard times, the sheep will strip more bark than others, but sometimes you will find individuals who just develop a taste for something. We used to have irises lining the driveway. The sheep would take a nibble here or there, but that was it until Donder decided they were quite tasty. We've seen two methods work for preserving the trees while allowing the sheep to mow.

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The first method is fencing. Simply fence around the trees that you don't want the sheep nibbling on. That would include any sapling and some trees that they just really like. They killed all the tulip poplars in the pastures but the mature oak, catalpa and walnuts are fine. Four fence posts each about 18 inches from the trunk and then wrapped with roll fencing designed for sheep will prevent access to the trunk. Alternately a single cattle panel rolled into a circle and anchored by two or three posts will do the same and will also act like a ladder for you when you go to pick those pears or peaches or whatever.

The second method is Rotation. Rotate the orchard pastures so that there's enough growing in the pasture such that the bark doesn't look that tasty. Our sheep mow our lawn. We change a gate and let them in the front yard about once a week or so. The cherry bushes and some of the younger trees are fenced, but there are a couple mulberry trees that are not fenced. It's not that we don't care if the sheep killed the trees. Mulberries are my favorite berry. The sheep love them too, as do song birds. (They are reminiscent of a raspberry in flavor with a hint of honey but are on a thornless tree and they don't have the big seeds like raspberries and when you cook them down into jam, the stems float to the top and can be easily skimmed off. Agro-industry doesn't like them because they don't ship well. City people don't like them because the birds eat them and then leave purple poops on the cars.) Since the sheep are only in that area once a week or so, they simply strip the leaves for typically 3 to 4 feet and leave the bark alone because there is easier to get to grass than working at stripping bark.

A pasture isn't just grass.


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