Sunday, April 25, 2010

Green, green grass of home

The most important and valuable crop around here is firewood. But a close second is grass.

Every cord of firewood we harvest off our own land and dry with our own sunshine saves us between $200 and $250, if we were to replace it with someone else's wood (around 20 mBtu/cord for dry ash). That same cord contains as much heat as about 150 gallons of oil (124,000 Btu/gal), which would cost us between $300 and $450, were we silly enough to buy that much oil. But actually we get a bit more since we use a woodstove that has a 90% thermal efficiency, while our older furnace is only 75%.

But feeding sheep on outside feed is expensive, and grass is by far their preferred nosh anyway, so we try to grow as much and as nice a feed as we can.

We feed grass, hay, and grain.

We can feed our own grass from April to November. From November to March we feed hay, which we have to buy in. We give more grain that time of year too since the ewes are growing lambs. In summer they only get a little grain, mostly to keep them tame and to help move them from pasture to pasture. They get a mix of Maine-grown oats and #16 sweet feed, more of the latter in the breeding season, more of the former in summer.

But grass is the main thing.

Grass management isn't too hard, but it does require some insight, which I've only slowly developed.

The main things seem to be the level of grazing pressure and the species composition.

Grazing pressure we manage with frequent rotation and fairly constant fencing and refencing of plots. The sheep are only ever allowed open access to one plot, their home paddock, which we call the "Back Forty," although it's only 3 acres. This is one of two permanent paddocks we have close to the barn that have good night-time security from predators. The Back Forty contains a security pen with a small shelter. Often we keep them penned-in during the day eating hay, to allow the paddock to recover, and since the very occasional numpty shows up with an off-leash dog while we're not here.

(Woe betide any lost or feral dog that shows up without an owner and hurts our sheep. That would be a dog that just forfeited the right to live. That's why God invented the 30-30 rifle.)

In the afternoons or evenings when we come home from work, or earlier on the weekends and in summer, we generally move them out on to small rotational paddocks, of which we have three, the New Paddock, the Island, and the Front Lawn. These are our best grass, green and very lush. We grow them out to between six and eight inches, and graze them down to about two inches. That two inches is enough leaf for the plant to recover quickly.

Grazing properly on a rotational basis encourages green growth and discourages stem growth and seed setting. The sheep get a nice easy bite, and have to work less hard to feed themselves. Their teeth last longer too.

In winter we keep them in the second home paddock, which we call the North Paddock. This field has direct access to the barn, and has a lot of trees for shelter. It takes the most hammer of all our pastures during winter and lambing season, and it gets the most seeding and raking. In midsummer, after a period of recovery, it can become another rotational paddock.

I resow our various paddocks frequently, perhaps over-frequently, to maintain the clover content and to drive the grass species distribution towards preferred types.

It's a fairly basic system, but it seems to be working especially well this spring, perhaps because of the mild weather and frequent rain, but also I think because we had a good year for rotating last year, and because we culled a couple of sheep that weren't needed, so our numbers are down a bit.

Whatever the reason, it's as green as can be out there, so green it hurts your eyes. Just beautiful, especially in the morning and evening light.

These photos, from the top, show...

1) The front lawn, with the electric fence we use to control the sheep on the smaller paddocks,

2) The New Paddock, showing the brush cutting operation. This is mostly sumac and ash saplings being cut. The grass underneath this relatively new growth is still green and lush and the species composition hasn't yet become more woodland-like.

3) The edge of the North Paddock showing the heavy winter grazing pressure. This will recover, although it will need some seeding and a little raking here and there with the tractor rake.

4) A bit of the Back Forty that loops around the garden. This bit is mossy, but grows very fine, really thin-stemmed grass.

5) Close up showing ladino or white clover penetration. This legume is the basis of our food chain, since grass by itself can't fix nitrogen. Clover will be bred out of pastures if you just leave it, but it takes seed well in early spring, before the frosts are gone, so I regularly sow small amounts all around. The seeds survive for more than one year, and so it can be kept up with relatively low effort.

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