There’s been enthusiastic talk of sheep, goats, and cows here at AOOA. There are few things more satisfying than visiting your herd on a summer’s eve, listening to their calm chewing and admiring their silky coats. Their almost-alchemical ability to turn grass into meat and milk inspires awe and respect.
But there’s a long checklist of things that need to be in place to avoid the corollary experiences: hastily tying together horse panels or trailer doors with baling twine, back-breaking poop-shoveling and haybale-rolling, returning errant animals to their paddock for the second time in a day, worrying about water and fresh grass during an August heat wave, and worrying about foot rot and soil compaction during Mud Season™. The first time you get up at 2am to feed a bottle lamb, there’s a sort of grim satisfaction to it. Not so on the twentieth.
sometimes it is cute... sometimes it is not!
We’re planning a lot here; the more we do, the more things can go wrong. That’s part of the game, on farms and elsewhere. With good planning, though, we can reduce the chances that more than one catastrophe will occur simultaneously.
So: I want to envision the stress points in raising ruminants in general. This will help refine our decision/process to add these to the farm.
Food: we need 4% of the animals’ body weight in forage each day. This is easy in May and October, and harder in August and February. Most of what we have in the pastures are cool-season grasses, which thrive in the “shoulder seasons.” It would be ideal to know how much forage is available in each month of the growing season. We can use a grazing stick and other sampling methods to get to the tons per acre of dry matter for our fields. It would be ideal to know how long it takes for a field grazed to 4″ to return to 10″ in various seasons. It likely varies between 30 and 60+ days.
Water: I want to be able to hook each animal’s water source to the farm’s irrigation system, and attach a float valve so that there is enough water at all times. I want it to be easy to set up water access when animals move from one paddock to another. Ideally, I want to be able to set up tomorrow’s water today. This means extra hoses, quick-connect valves, float valve feeder hoses, and a plan to reduce trampling damage around the water tank, especially if it is raining.
Fences: We got the electronet up to 8000 volts using a plug-in energizer. This is great. I want to be able to reliably get over 5000 volts in all fences on the farm. We’ll have to plan whether to rely on the plug-in energizer and invest in enough electric line to get it around the farm, or include portable solar-powered energizers. In either case, we need to have grounding for the circuit and an easy way to set up the next paddock when we move from one row to another. I think we’ll be setting up long electronets parallel with our tree rows and moving short three-section cross pieces as subdivisions. If we use polywire for cows or sheep, we should have a similar setup: pre-cut 36′ sections that are easy to roll up and move. We should have enough to set up a few days of moves ahead of time so we can allocate time when we have it. We’ll need to be ready to mow fencelines before fences go up. Best if we can mow a week’s worth of line at a time. We need an easy way to carry around fiberglass posts for temporary fence; ideally, we decide on a layout and put up corner T-posts for the whole season. We need to map out what a season of grazing will look like, and what it takes to move animals on their farthest move (blocking access to farm road, a team of people to herd; what can go wrong?). We’ll need to have fences labeled, a storage plan for the off-season, and a tracking system to know when each fence was bought and what its condition is.
Parasites: We need a plan for sheep and goats to stay off of a certain paddock for 60 days, which is helpful in preventing parasite transmission. This could involve feeding supplemental hay in the growing season if we don’t get our stocking rate right. We will be selecting for parasite resistance in our herd, but will need to treat for parasites. This means we need handling equipment (corrals and chutes and gates that make it easy to isolate sheep to give medicine orally) and other medical supplies. Our intensive silvopasture systems will help, by providing feed away from ground level (parasites lay eggs within 6″ of ground) and providing condensed tannins, but they will not be mature enough in year 1 to withstand heavy grazing. How will we efficiently manage poultry alongside our ruminants?
Winter: We need a physical barrier to keep animals in even when the ground is insulated with snow. We’ll need an easy way to provide hay, a dry place to sleep, and, especially, a way to deal with several months of manure. We need to have a way to feed hay that minimizes “wastage” but ensures the animals have enough quality hay to eat. Parasites don’t stop growing when the grass does: we can work on a wood chip deep bedding setup, but we will likely need to keep animals inside at some point. It would be ideal to be able to deal with manure using machines. We need a way to keep water flowing when the ground is frozen, and a way to prevent the animals from taking the water system apart with their…curious noses.
Mud season: There will be a time (April) when the grass is green but the animals cannot graze because the ground is too wet and the grass is not tall enough. They, and we, will be desperate for them to start eating grass; they will have less respect for the fence. We’ll have to decide: do we keep feeding hay until conditions are ideal, or put animals out early and risk compaction, pugging, and reduced productivity? We don’t have a good way to handle round bales of hay, which means we’ll need to use small bales, which are more expensive.
erosion. it’s not fun + these mulberries are large enough to graze, after being in the ground for a year.
Nutrition: at various points in their life cycles, ruminants require higher levels of nutrients in their diet. This is especially true if they are dairy animals. We’ll need to be really serious about managing our pastures for dairy-quality forage, and be ready to feed second-cut hay (higher in protein) to maintain production and health when pastures are inadequate. The intensive silvopasture systems will help (mulberry leaves are still 24% protein in August), but they won’t be fully functional for another year or two.
Other infrastructure: Most medicines are dosed based on animal’s body weight. You can get by with a weight tape, but it becomes less and less reliable the more wool your sheep has. It would be useful to have animal scales integrated in the handling equipment so that we can track accurate weights across the year. We’ll need a way to feed minerals: a block is adequate to start, but it would be great for the animals to have a way to select which minerals they need. We don’t yet know what’s in our pastures; it will be useful to take forage samples throughout the year and find out. When an animal dies unexpectedly, what will we do? Our trees are not yet big enough to provide shade: how will we manage heat stress when the temperature is above 80 degrees? (How do we keep our shade structure from blowing away, while making sure it’s easy enough to move around?).
Calving/lambing/kidding: We’ll need to plan when baby animals will be born, and where. We should be able to get to them to tag/castrate/check on general wellness. We need to be prepared to feed high-quality diets in the months surrounding birth. Are we going to rent a ram, buck, or bull, or have a vet perform AI? We’ll need a system of record-keeping and a plan for how the timing of reproduction matches with the timing of other farm tasks. We’ll select for easy reproduction and mothering ability; what happens when a birth does not go smoothly? We need to train up on minor veterinary care during birth, and have our vet ready to call.
Daily time commitment: Let’s think through the seasonal work flow at the farm. On big days like shearing, parasite treatment, long moves, and escape emergencies, are we ready for all-hands-on-deck? How will we manage the logistics of daily milking, including sanitary handling and processing of milk?
I’m excited for the time when we have ruminants of some kind on the farm. I’ll be even more excited when we have a robust plan and infrastructure to make it enjoyable.