Gallant Grazing

Leafhopper Farm Cascade Katahdins are making a meal of our spring meadows at EEC Forest Stewardship. There are some great vegetative vantages with the help of more rain and cooler temperatures in June. Our flock is delving in to delicious abundance and we’re planning out our rotational grazing for a good mat of thatch to keep moisture in and temperatures down within the soil. June 22nd finds us still enjoying cool temps and misty rain, but by the 26th, in just a few days, we’ll be spiking to the 90sF and Summer with start off with a BANG! Having observed the flock in high 70s on Tuesday, I’m concerned about this sudden spike for the gals, and all living systems. It’s the exponential growth in global temperatures that will have greatest impact this year. We’re rolling out a small AC to keep our appliances in the house from failing. The sheep, dogs, cats, and chickens will have shade, water, and as much comfort as we can provide outside.

For the land, we insulate the ground by letting the grass grow a little longer, and moving the sheep a little sooner than usual. The fields look shaggy, but that rough cut will provide mulch the soil will need to protect against hot temperatures. Evaporation from exposed topsoil would make any cultivator cringe, so keeping grass on the ground is imperative for water retention. If you mow your lawn, set the blade up a few inches so the grass remains thick near the root. I’m always surprised at how grass is cut so short in the hot summer. If only we could see the evaporation happening, the loss of water from the soil kills all life on the surface. UV rays bake the earth’s surface, and sterilize, which denudes the soil of its living structure, rendering it sterile, which is impossible to cultivate food in. Yes, tall grass can be a fire hazard, but only if left up- our sheep stamp down a lot of the tall grass while grazing, mixing it together with dung and mud while things are wet. It’s a great tonic for soil health, and keeps our sheep fat and happy.

Seasonal changes always dictate grazing rotation. Anyone actually running stock knows there’s no magic formula of guaranteed output because of climate shifts and environmental impacts far beyond the control of animals or the people caring for them. Spring is the boom time when weather is cool and the ground remains wet. We’re having a lot more vegetative production right now, so I could be feeding twice as many sheep. Why do I not have more sheep? By September, after a few months of baking hot temperatures and little pasture recovery, like last year (2021), I’d be feeding my sheep hay in the barn two months before the winter season (wet season) officially started. That puts additional costs on me, expenses that my clients will struggle to accept in lamb prices going up. There is a tipping point. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s a closely watched subject in these times of poor supply lines and record breaking inflation. I’ve not secured alfalfa for next Fall, no one is promising orders right now. East side planting just went in (over a month late) and it will mean a shortage.

In a boom Spring like this, why not cut hay? We do some hay cutting- with a scythe, and have an offer from neighbors with a tractor to come rake up their cuttings. We might be doing that this year, which would be a lot more work, and still cost in labor and time. At that point, we’d cull down to 4 sheep and keep a home flock, thus shifting from production farm to reforestation, which would be moving 20 years ahead on the EEC conservation plan, but hey, seems the world is in need of rewilding, so hey, skip ahead. That would mean a personal pivot from being a farmer/shepherd to getting back into the work force and completely changing personal career plans, but that’s also common in this age. EEC has been developing into a food production template, and when that space for cultivation is needed, things are ready. That has always been the short term goal, and we’re about there as far as restoration activation. If we walked away tomorrow, the land would be cleaner, more diversified, and enriched for long term growth, but it would be ideal to have another 30 years of active replanting continue to optimize restorative potential. That’s still my personal commitment to this place within my lifetime.

Livestock systems are so crucial to this restoration process, and if this land could leave one solid lesson in legacy of its transformation, it’s holistic grazing. From the time we first became stewards of this property, animals were the driving force. Goats, Pigs, Sheep, and Chickens have played a role, mimicking wild ungulate numbers if they were healthy. Yes, though it feels like there are a lot of deer in the neighborhood, there would be far more, and countless elk moving through, pushed up into the foothills by wolves on the hunt. Humane development has stagnated wild lands in our area, and around the world. Suburban Neighborhoods scour over important habitat, which then snuffs out the capacity of a landscape to support animal and plant life. Here in Western Washington, wetland setbacks have begun to set a limit on development in certain areas, but enough money can be thrown at anything to change the rules. Mitigation ponds (holding ponds) are now accepted alternative to preserving wetlands in high development potential zones. Again, hubris in thinking human construction can perfectly replace the complexity of a natural system.

So, are the sheep kind of the same thing? Oh yes, they are a sad mimic to elk, deer, and wolves. Our dogs don’t chase the ungulates out of lowlands. Though Valley, our Aussie mix, is a great herding dog who does move the sheep off old pasture and onto new, much like her wild cousins. Only having 13 sheep and a few acres is limiting, but our rotational plan and animal numbers keep a fine balance of ecological health and food production. That food is meat, fruit, and vegetables. Ecological health looks like native plantings, temperate rainforest restoration, as well as the preservation of clean soil and water. All are in play, with or without human “stewardship”. But we’re here, and cultivating change, both productive and destructive. Livestock can be incredibly detrimental to landscape and its delicate ecology. If left unchecked, and degraded landscape will collapse under animal predation.

If EEC were to stop using sheep tomorrow, we’d have to do a lot of mowing and replanting of forest fast. The Katahdin sheep do very important work keeping land clear, and meat on our table and those of our dear patrons. They are also sewing endless fertility in manure for the soil, and thatch for carbon boost and water retention. The mower can’t add manure fertility, it’s only chemical output is toxic- and we’re still using a few two stroke engines, but not all the time. If the sheep have access to grazing, they are eating. A good flock will happily munch into darkness and rise again for a midnight snack during the warm dry summer months. Right now, July 2022, our flock is in the back pasture busily grazing grass and blackberry. The lambs, ewes, and rams are putting on good weight. Weening and breeding are in full swing, as peak abundance arrives.

Gratitude for these animals, their original instructions to graze, brows, and grow, and the land fertility we cultivate together in shared partnership. Thanks to the dog nation and these two pups who help with the sheep, keeping them safe and providing support in vigilance, loyalty, and grace. Gill, our Livestock Guardian Dog, provides necessary protection from very real predatory threats like cougar and coyote. Without the dogs we would not have a flock on this land. Our relationship with predators is one of respect and the acknowledgement that they were here first, and a very important part of the natural system. We welcome them in the same way we welcome the elk. We create space for them, and plan long term habitat restoration to offer more food and shelter. Many generations from now, long after the sheep are gone, we hope that bear, cougar, bobcat, coyote, elk, and all the other native wildlife will continue to thrive in this temperate rainforest home.

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