Pasture Practices

Sheep were in this pasture for three days, two weeks ago. We’ll rest it for another week and hope to get a few more inches of growth before putting the sheep back on for another 2-3 days. Our flock consists of 20 sheep and the upper pasture is about 2 acres of pasture and 1 acre of browsing. When it rains regularly, we expect about 2 inches of pasture growth a week during the growing season. Drought stagnates growth to roughly 2 inches a month. We sometimes feed hay in September to keep pasture condition through 3 month summer drought. In winter, we pull the sheep off the ground and rest everything till March of next year. What I’d like to see more of in the photo above? Diversity! We’re broadcasting forb mixes including wildflowers, clover, amaranth, and brassicas where there are patches of open ground, but will need the use of a seed drill for productive replanting.

Most soil here in Western Washington is acidic, and needs regular amending with dolomite lime, which is usually tilled into fields in the fall, but we don’t want to till, so we use our chickens- though it’s a much slower process. Our layers get limestone in their feed, and poop all over the pastures after our sheep move through- which also manages pests that would thrive in the sheep poop and plague us all. While scratching through the manure piles, chickens break down the nitrogen thatch and poop out their own amendment to the soil. This living dynamic of cooperative systems makes the holistic dream come true. Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, the energy of restoration farming continues to enhance our quality and production of both great sheep and chickens, providing lamb and eggs to our surrounding community from thriving pasture on living soil.

Rotational grazing is the key to maintaining pasture production, and soil conditioning with manure, minerals, and aeration is another. Most industrial farms use machines and a lot of expensive commercial fertilizers to force production from the land. Their soil has turned into dead earth full of artificial chemicals. When there is nothing living in the soil, its production will eventually crash. The industrial chemicals used to condition soil kills the living biom, reducing long term productivity. Agriculture across the world is starting to acknowledge this self-destructive pattern, but the damage is done. Even now, with the knowledge we have of how damaging chemical treatment of soil is, farmers in the US are still treating their soil commercially and it’s killing the very soil they want to cultivate. In man’s (gender bias meant here) attempt to enforce his dominion over the earth, he’s killing the very thing sustaining his survival.

There’s not much wild grazing left in the world to study for understanding how nature set herself up for sustaining life on earth, and humans aren’t very good at taking notes from the experts if they are not men in lab coats producing record profits, but the time to pay attention to the natural order of things is at hand folks- Mother Nature has been perfecting soil production for millions of years, and the biological adaptations produce more “profit” than any stock market investment could attain. Mimicking nature yields successful results in time- yes, time, as in- you have to be patient. The universe is on an endless cycle of evolution, time, by human standards of measurement, wants to rush things, and in some ways we can. The numbers of animals in my rotational grazing matters- and the climate, and the soil’s current health. I have to know the history of my soil- from ice age glacial compaction to the last sixty years post clear-cut erosion.

application of anhydrous ammonia on fields in Nebraska

The quality and content of soil varies from place to place, but some basic practices remain the same on pastures in any landscape. You can find lots of plug in equations to calculate how many pasture spaces you need for such number of animals, but to be frank, it’s going to take time and patience to adjust to your land’s pace. The goal is to improve the land- but that improvement varies, and nature can always improve much faster than humans- we are short sighted and assume so much about the natural world. Look at the plants living in the soil where you wish to create pasture. Those species will tell you a lot about the chemical content of your soil and what’s needed to condition it. Animal activity is usually a good thing to introduce- though in some environments, this can be detrimental. Manure is composed of the basic organic materials needed to support living soil- including bacteria, carbon, and nitrogen. It’s the nitrogen that can saturate soil and burn it- which is why too many animals can kill off the living microbes within the soil.

Soil compaction is also a major issue, and too many animals can prevent proper aeration- though the right amount of animal activity can be crucial. Hoof grinding of soil, manure, and vegetation is a necessary part of pasture improvement and long term thriving grasslands. Even the saliva of grazers plays a part in improving pasture growth. The landscape thrives within complex chemical relationships that people have struggled to dictate with simple prescriptions based on industrial demand bearing out an abusive relationship with the land that is costing us any quality of life. I’m sure even the implementation of sheep and chickens on a rotating system of limited depth is doing less help than might returning the space entirely to temperate rainforest canopy right now, but remember, as an agriculturalist, I’m working the land, not just improving it. For the next few decades, the sheep will graze, keeping some of the land open and producing a meat source for the community. The soil being grazed upon will build carbon deposits and long term layers of fertility to host the eventual forest. EEC plans to replant native canopy in time, but there needs to be an abundance of top soil fertility to support the massive trees which struggle to regain their footing across the landscape.

Seasonal rhythms will have great impact on how pastures are treated. As I mentioned before, I take my sheep off the pasture as much as possible in winter. This does not mean they never get out to graze for our 6 month deluge, but the time grazing is limited. In summer, the pasture is divided up into smaller segments with focused grazing- called “stripping“. Note in the picture above, there are plantings in the pasture space, where trees (a fruit orchard in this case) are planted and established for long term silvopasture practices. This picture is also taken in Zone 3 of our permaculture design. I can see this field from my house and have a lot of direct engagement with the systems there- earthworks, irrigation, fruit production, grazing rotation- to name a few. This pasture area will continue to develop into an orchard over time, with more planting to come as the trees establish and thrive. We’re still irrigating to maintain the young plantings, as because of the water investment and direct oversight, this area will be planted out with more production crops, eventually becoming an occasional grazing space, with limited access to allow ground cover and shrubs to establish.

Remember, in places you allow your livestock to graze, many species of under-story plants will struggle to take hold- especially if you are using the stripping method. Eventually, we’ll cut back grazing rotation to minimal contact, maybe an hour at a time gleaning through when spring growth is at its height. At the peak growth rate, the green vegetation stays ahead of the grazers, so long as their impact is minimal. When stock is left on ground for too long, bare spots form, erosion occurs, and the animals end up standing in their own feces and mud. The picture below shows cows in New Zealand and a heifer giving birth in the filth. Not only are these kinds of conditions common on overtaxed landscapes, animals can adapt and survive in them, so producers are unlikely to address these grievances without over-site.

On small hill farms like ours, this muddy nightmare would bring complete ruin to the limited topsoil fertility we manage to retain. This is why hill farms are not rich crop producers, there is not flat ground for tilling, and our precious topsoil cannot be left uncovered. Rain leeches what little fertility is left in the soil, so livestock is a good solution, bringing back that fertility and thriving on uneven ground. Though sheep and chickens play a vital role in the current land setup, our long term goal will see the animals phased out and a forest replanted. Most pastures and fields are not slated to be reforested- it would cause a loss in production for any sane farmer playing the industrial agriculture game. Short term gain using synthetic chemical conditioners in the soil and limited rotational grazing and diversification of species commits long term failure. Maximum output has become our greedy focus as a consumer society at the cost of our land’s stability.

When we learn to see the landscape we’re living in as our selves, perhaps then we can begin to form a relationship that nurtures everything, rather than forcing land to profit without repaying the service. In the same was colonial dominion has failed, this outdated land conditioning for industrial production will also continue to fail, though we’re oblivious to the starvation we’ve reserved for ourselves in abusing our environment. The industrial treatment of soil also directly contaminates our water, and between these two finite resources stand the pillars of our survival as a species. Yet we continue to pollute, pave, and develop towards our own destruction. In these times of insanity, it is up to the smaller farms and ecologically minded cultivators to steward what’s left in hopes that some areas of our planet might dodge complete collapse. If you have the ability to make friends with a local small scale producer, and are willing to pay the true cost of food in support of mindful production, you can help to invest in clean water and soil for the future. Gratitude to all the people who recognize this ambition and support small scale agriculture for long term health and happiness.

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