Flexibility for Livestock Success

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by Adobestock/Johnstocker

I was recently struck by how different this past winter was from the year before, and the year before, and so on, and it got me thinking about how when it comes to “making it” on the land, flexibility is the name of the game. And yet, we made plans for how to handle the newborn lambs and how to protect the garden next year, in light of what we experienced this year. We are definitely shaped by our immediate experiences, but we can’t cling too tightly to the plans we develop as a result of them.

Recently, I was asked for a blueprint for developing a resilient group of sheep by some inexperienced folks who had never raised sheep. My advice was to read everything they could find about small ruminant husbandry, pasture development, fence building, etc. Further, I suggested that as much information as possible should be gleaned from various communities of small-ruminant and large-ruminant raisers. And finally, I suggested they file all that information away in their brains and go observe the animals they’re interested in under differing management practices. From that work, they could build their own framework for how they’d like to begin to embrace their sheep project. And in time, they’ll develop their own dynamic and flexible non-blueprint for raising sheep. This advice stands for virtually every other homesteading or small farming endeavor.

Writing this reminded me of a day, maybe 40 years ago, when I was compelled to embark on a free-range chicken project. I already had a few hens and had observed their behaviors on pasture and had seen what they ate. I even planted alfalfa and red clover in patches for them, because I had seen that they relished those greens. When researching for a blueprint for scaling up, I came across a U.S. Department of Agriculture publication relating to the toxicity of certain plants to various animals. By then, I’d watched enough Western movies to know about the perils of locoweed (and quicksand too), so I eagerly skipped to the tables relating to poultry. And you guessed it: Red clover and alfalfa were on the list of toxic plants. I chewed on this for a few days and then went back to see how the study was conducted. Essentially, the scientists took a list of known poultry toxins and ran that against a list of plants known to contain said toxins. So I let my chickens eat the legumes, and decades later, when I read Fred Provenza’s work, I understood why my chickens thrived on “toxic” plants.

With future uncertainty looming large, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience are skills worth developing. As comfortable as a blueprint or road map might be, rigidity of thought and action can lead to a brittleness that will cause failures of all kinds. If you’ve experienced the need to radically change your plans due to externalities you encounter, I’d love to hear about them. Send me an email at HWill@MotherEarthNews.com.

man and lamb smiling for the camera

See you in June,


  • Updated on Mar 12, 2022
  • Originally Published on Mar 1, 2022
Tagged with: livestock management, pasture management