Pasture Management with Small Ruminants

Learn a new way to manage your property.

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Photo by Karen K. Will
These animals provide not only rich, organic fertilizers to help build soil, they can also provide endless hours of entertainment.

Once part of most diversified and subsistence farms, four-stomached ungulates such as cattle, sheep, and goats are designed to harvest the solar energy that’s already been captured by plants. It is because they eat that converted solar energy to use as fuel for themselves that they can provide us with such a plethora of products and services. Farmers and homesteaders of old knew that the road to real wealth was paved with photons, neatly converted to food, fiber, fertilizer and mechanical work, and heat (at one time, many northern farmhouses were attached to the barn so the animals’ body heat could heat the house). So important was the harvesting of light energy through animals that no farm could be without them.

As modern agriculture became industrialized, it also became less diversified. Farmers started specializing in just a few crops or one kind of animal. And the ecological balance on the farm has been way out of whack ever since. When animals are moved off the land and into the prison-like torture chambers we currently call feeding operations, the animal benefit to the land, the farmer’s mental health and wellbeing, and the environment are lost. Perhaps most unfortunately, any semblance of self-sustainability was lost the moment agriculturists were brainwashed into adopting these methods. One of the principal flaws with current industrialized agricultural models is that it requires vast quantities of a finite energy source (petroleum) — ironically captured from the sun — through the very photosynthesis process that only partially fuels industrial ag — and stored in rich and highly concentrated deposits millions or more years ago.

Manage for the Ecosystem You Want

We’ve discussed the incredible power of hogs for tilling the ground and removing stumps and the like. But what do you do if you want to convert or restore an overgrown scrubland into productive grassland? You could opt for some quality time in the seat of a large diesel-fuel-guzzling machine and doze, shred, or otherwise destroy that unwanted vegetation. But, though operating heavy equipment can be fun, it is hard on a body and hard on the land, and it’s noisy, smelly, and pretty expensive. It’s also quick. But the 21st century homesteader has nothing, if not time. Your place won’t be built in a day, so take it one day at a time and marvel at your progress — employing a progression of animals to restore (and later maintain) a grassland can be soothing rather than jarring, and you’ll end up with something useful even as your land is being restored.

Likewise, if you wish to open up the understory in a woodlot, or clear heavy growth between rows of fruit trees or cultivated vines, well-managed groups of animals can help you make it all happen, and you won’t need to spend a dime on feed or fuel. In fact, you may well add value through increased animal numbers and/or through the products they offer while making a living from the growth you’re trying to get rid of.

Goats Are a Good Start

When faced with an impenetrable thicket, whether in a meadow, wooded area, or fencerow, nothing beats a goat’s agility and tenacity. They will eat a path through almost any landscape. Goats are designed to browse, that is, graze off the ground on leaves and fleshy twigs of woody vegetation. And, if you have allowed your goats to keep their horns, they’ll not only eat holes into the thicket, they’ll also hook and break stems and saplings by rubbing their heads on them. Goats have been used successfully to keep power line rights-of-way clear of shrubby growth (including tree seedlings) and to eradicate the rogue multiflora rose bushes our USDA once imported and encouraged us to plant in the hedgerow. Goats have the added advantage of being able to go where no bulldozer or tractor could be safely operated.

If the shrubby areas you wish to open up are small, you might want to fence the entire area for goats. If your fencing is goat-tight, it’s also pretty much impervious to other forms of livestock. Or, if you’re just working on small patches of scrub or rose bushes, you might opt for temporary electric netting fence — assuming you’ve trained your goats to respect it. We’ve used electric net fencing and small flocks of Pygmy goats to remove large multiflora rose infestations — all you need to do is surround the rose thickets with the fencing, then let the goats do their thing. Since Pygmy goats are short, after a few days we knock down the taller bushes with a machete — if you keep at it, you’ll only need the machete once. You might only get one tenth of an acre macheted in a day, but keep coming back the next day until it’s done. You can let the goats re-browse the sucker leaves that will inevitably sprout, or you can move them on and bring in a few sheep.

Goats can thrive on a steady supply of shrubby browse, and they’ll create more goats on such a diet if you let them, which makes the exercise of eradicating unwanted vegetation a potential paying proposition. If you enjoy eating goat, you can also feed your family — and perhaps several other families in the process. But don’t try to run a goat dairy on this kind of forage. The logistics and fluctuations in browse quality would make dependable milk production tough, if not impossible, to achieve. However, if you do run dairy goats on your pastures, they may perform stalwart service in keeping brush at bay — unless they are hopelessly spoiled by prime hay, lush legume pastures, or other high-value feeds.

If you bring your goats into a corral or barn each evening, you’ll also benefit from a good supply of fertilizer. If you don’t bring them in, no worries; they will simply convert vegetation to fertilizer and drop it where they harvested it. In this way, you can actually help enrich somewhat depleted areas or jumpstart some of the nutrient cycles by speeding up the decomposition process.

Goats, especially smaller breeds, hornless breeds, or dehorned individuals, will require plenty of protection from predators. When enclosed in electric net fencing, they should be pretty safe, but when out on range, even with good woven wire or electric fences, proven guard animals in the form of dogs, mules, donkeys, or llamas will lend more protection. If you have pet dogs, be aware that your guard animals will likely see them as predators, so don’t allow the pets to mingle too closely with the guards, or you might end up heartbroken.

Let the Sheep Do the Shearing

Sheep enjoy browsing and grazing, and they’ll relish the sucker growth from the shrubs that the goats beat back to the ground. They’ll love to browse lush pastures, but also the coarser grasses and forbs that finicky eaters like cattle often ignore. If you follow goats with sheep (and allow them access several times during the growing season), they will quickly kill invading shrubs as they browse the sucker growth. Sheep are quite simply made for keeping woodlot understories open and grassy meadows free of shrubby growth.

When the great cattle barons of the American West felt threatened by sheep, people and animals not only lost their lives, but the sheep were blamed for every rangeland degradation issue imaginable. Sheep were said to overgraze, draw coyotes and other predators, cause soil erosion, cause compaction, spread weeds, you name it. The fact of the matter is that sheep, like all ungulates, will damage a rangeland ecosystem when space is limited and animal numbers are high — the same as all grazing animals.

Sheep do have the ability to clip grasses and other pasture plants very close to the ground. If allowed to overgraze any large area, the entire stand is left at a disadvantage because regrowth will be slow and fewer grass plants will regrow because their growing points — the crowns — are damaged by close cropping. In a fragile natural habitat, this damage can be severe to the point of erosion, invasive weed infestation, and even desertification. But the fault doesn’t lie with the sheep; it’s largely due to the lazy management practices of the shepherd.

When few enough head are given a large enough space, they will roam from place to place and rarely hit the same patch of pasture more than a couple of times in an entire season (assuming water sources are well-distributed). Likewise, while the sheep’s sharply pointed hoof can be a tool of compaction, it can also be a tool of aeration. Hooves readily break up dead, dry, brown vegetative thatch that’s unlikely to break down without a little mechanical help. A small group of sheep can help keep open areas open, build soil organic matter, and maintain plant and insect species diversity in meadows, all while providing sheep, wool, meat, fertilizer, and so on. Even if you skip the meat and fiber, sheep make excellent working partners — and they’re generally easier to handle and less intimidating to most folks than goats.

Sheep, even more than goats, will require protection from predators like coyotes and domesticated dogs. Luckily, they aren’t quite the escape artists goats are, so fencing for sheep needn’t be quite so sturdy. Sheep have a very strong flocking instinct compared with other grazing groups; as individuals, they tend to give up more readily (read: they die easily). In our hands, sheep go into shock after relatively minor injuries (what appear to us to be superficial scratches), especially at the jaws of a dog, and they die if left unattended. For the smallholder, an easy way to deal with predators is to simply bring the sheep in at night. If you have strong coyote or domesticated dog pressure, pen them in a corral fenced with dog-proof woven wire or reinforced with electric fence. You can also pen sheep up in a shed for the night. If you choose this method, be sure that the ventilation is very good. Dust coupled with damp animal breath is a good recipe for passing respiratory pathogens through a flock.

Four-Legged Lawnmowers

Sheep have been maintaining country manor lawns since lawns were invented. Their ability to crop the grass short and their penchant for forb-based forage makes them perfect for managing the homestead lawn. All you need to make it work is a sufficiently sheep-proof fence to keep the animals where you want them and sufficient sheep to keep the lawn clipped, yet lush.

We’ve used sheep to mow the grass for years, and it really works. We fence them away from young trees, shrubs, the perennial gardens, vegetable garden, and places where we don’t appreciate their pellets underfoot. We use a combination of woven wire fencing and portable electric net fencing to guide the animals, and we never let them have access to the entire yard at the same time. So a group of ten ewes and their lambs might trim our side yard in two or three days, then we move them on to the backyard, and so on. We don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides on the lawn — you shouldn’t either, if you’re going to mow with sheep.

The first time we tried mowing with sheep, it was because we were caught short of early spring pasture. Faced with the last of the hay fed out and a semi-formal lawn looking shaggy, we parked the petroleum, left the tractor in the barn, and led the sheep to the lawn. Not only did the yard hold the sheep until we got some new pasture fencing in place, it proved to us that putting the concept into practice was really a piece of cake. Generally, we avoid grazing the lawn when it’s very wet. Most years, we run the yard mower twice or three times, at most.

Reprinted with permission from Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions by Oscar H. Will & Karen K. Will and published by New Society Publishers, 2013.