Monday, January 11, 2010

Dreaming of Green Pasture

Everything is buried in snow, and it is freakin' cold. But I cannot help but look forward to warmer weather.

The sheep are reasonably happy this winter with some nice second cut hay - their condition is looking really good right now. But they would be much happier lounging around in a nice green pasture.

Our farm consists of 78 rolling acres, most of which is wooded. About forty years ago, our property had extensive meadows but the meadows have become overgrown with trees. We have begun the process of recovering those meadows.

We want to expand the utility of our land by reclaiming the meadows and pasturing additional livestock. We don't have much capital to invest in this venture. I have been talking about turning woods to pasture for a couple years, and the conventional wisdom around here is that it costs $5,000 per acre. Yikes! The lumber generates some revenue, but that is more than consumed by the effort to stump and pick rocks (we live in the "Granite State").

Last summer, we spent some of our "spare" time clearing some land. Clearing brush and small trees (up to 14" in diameter) with our available tools (chainsaw and chipper) is a lot of work. We worked hard but made only modest progress.

This fall, we decided that we needed "More Power" (my kids recently discovered reruns of Home Improvement). We brought in some loggers with real equipment. We walked the property with them for a couple of hours and discussed our vision and short-term goals, and then set them loose.

We had them cut several acres, leaving a smattering of oaks for some shade; on several more acres, we had them selective cut. The trees and intervening brush were cut to less than a foot of ground level, but all stumps were left in place. The sheep/cows will just have to eat around the stumps, and we will have to deal with not being able to mow. If/when we win Powerball, I suppose we can have the stumps pulled. We have a stump grinder, and can eliminate the most egregious of the stumps.

One advantage of not pulling stumps is that we don't have to pick rocks - a bizillion rocks are lurking below the surface that would be exposed if we turn over the soil. We also will not lose the good soil that would be pulled with the stumps.

Speaking of soil, I was thrilled to see the rich quality of the soil in our new pasture.

When spring finally comes, my next challenge will be to begin establishing forage species and doing some fencing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fresh Forage

One edge of the pasture has really started to grow, and I put the ewes there this afternoon. There probably is only 2-3 days of grazing available there, and then they will be back on hay (unless the rest of the pasture picks up the pace a little).

The girls were very excited to get something green to eat. I had almost forgotten how relaxing it can be to watch and listen to grazing sheep.

Frost Seeding

Last fall, I tore up part of a pasture to lay a drainage pipe. There is a spring that drains down a slope across the field. The water spreads out and formed a wide, marshy area. The 100 foot drainage pipe appears to have solved the problem.

I was left with a wide swath of mud this spring. Soon after the snow cleared, I seeded with a pasture mix (various grasses, clover, etc.). Now that it is warming up, there has been serious germination. It looks like "frost seeding" works!

Hopefully, this area will be ready for grazing before too long.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Where Did the Fences Go?

So we had another snow storm this past Sunday. The forecast was for 6-12" - at our location we usually are at the top end of the range because we are at a little higher altitude than average around here. This is a pretty typical forecast for our area.

The flurries started around 2:00 PM on Sunday afternoon. I finished cutting up and hauling a couple of dead trees from the woods near the outdoor wood boiler (we are running low on firewood due to the crazy cold winter we have been having), and headed in for some lunch. The flurries continued until around sunset, and then the skies opened.

All evening it snowed incredibly hard and the wind picked up (gusts to 35 mph). From where I was sitting in the living room, I can see the road, and I only saw the plow once all evening. It turns out that the plow made several trips down our road - I just couldn't see because the snow was piled up halfway up the window! Our satellite TV went out around 11 PM as the snow interrupted the line-of-sight between the dish and the satellite. I stepped outside before bed around midnight, and it looked like we had 18" on the ground and it was still snowing like crazy.

By 7 AM the snow had stopped. Although we had lost power during the night, it was back on by then. Our neighbor has a sheltered spot, and she measured 27" of new snow. Around our yard, we had 2-5' of new snow everywhere -- have you ever tried to use a snow blower to clear 5' of snow?. The satellite dishes on the roof were completely covered (the roof had been spotless before the storm). The tree limbs were bending (and breaking) under the weight. It took me and Catherine about 4 hours to clear the edge of the roof (and dishes), driveways and paths to the animals. We got to the sheep last.

The sheep were under their cover, and pretty much stuck there. The biggest of them could look up and over the snow, but none had ventured out into it - the snow was above their backs.

When I built the pens, I built the gates to open into the pen. This is a major problem when there is 3-4' of fresh snow behind the gate. I was able to snow-blow the outside, but ended up climbing over the fence and falling in head-first (wife and kids thought that was pretty funny). The kids and I shoveled out the pens enough that the sheep have room to move around, get to the hay, water bucket and minerals. Unfortunately, the snow is up to the top of the fence outside the pen. Hopefully all the hungry predators (and my dogs) are too heavy to walk on top of the snow and right into the pen! I feel like I ought to blow a path around the pens, but it is just too freakin' deep! And I am strongly considering flipping the hinges on the gates around so they open outward.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Meadows

It is still the middle of winter, but my mind is on spring. Because I want happy, healthy, fast-growing sheep, I need to grow a lot of really good forage. Currently, we have only a couple of good acres of pasture (and even that needs some more work). Starting in the spring, we will begin the work of renovating, reinvigorating and rediscovering the "meadows."

Nate, our next door neighbor, recently moved back into the house where he was raised. He tells us that our property used to have big, beautiful meadows. That was 40 years ago. Now we have a lot of "new" forest characterized by 3-8 inch diameter trees and a lot of undergrowth (mostly 1-2 inch diameter beech trees). There are very few mature trees (2+ feet in diameter), and actually most of those are dead. Around many parts of our property, you can tell when you cross the boundary because you step into a much more mature forest.

This is going to be a multi-year effort. In order to get off on the right foot, we have purchased some of the necessary tools, including a brush hog and a stump grinder. These will be delivered in the second half of March. I already have a chain saw and a small chipper (up to 3.5 inch branches). We are also taking about a tractor - might go shopping for that next weekend.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ram-Proof Fence?

My Bluefaced Leicesters (BFLs) are currently in two pens that share a section of fence. Each pen has a ram and 3-4 ewes. The pen has 4x4 treated posts sunk into the ground as deep as I could dig before I hit a boulder (generally 18-30 inches - New Hampshire is the "granite state" and the glaciers dropped rocks everywhere). The posts are connected by horizontal 2x4s at 6" and 48" above the ground. I stapled 47" woven wire sheep fencing to whole thing. This wire is heavy, sturdy and a pain to work with. But it is strong and I figured there was no way any sheep was going to get out, and no canine was going to get in - if there was going to be a problem, it was going to be something jumping over. My sheep can easily clear a 42" fence when they want to. And snow buildup makes the fence shorter every storm (got another 4" today).

It turns out I had it all wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the fence was dented and deformed between the pens. Today I noticed one of the rams was kinda bloody around his neck and shoulder. I couldn't catch him, so I am not sure where exactly he got cut, but he seems to be ok. While I was trying to corner him, I noticed that the woven wire fence between the pens is broken in multiple places and bent all out of shape. The holes are big enough that one of the yearlying ewes could squeeze through if she wanted to. Fortunately, everyone was still in the right pen.

I still cannot believe that they managed to do this much damage to the fence "bare handed." I know I couldn't have done it without my bolt cutters.

Lesson: Don't underestimate the strength of a motivated ram.

I had some steel panels in the barn, and reinforced the fence that divides the pen. Hopefully that will convince them to stay in their own pens.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fall is Here

It has been a very busy summer. I have learned a lot in the last two and a half months.

I am trying to learn and practice managed intensive grazing. The sheep made one and a half trips around the fields before the grass ran out. I was able to give the lower field some attention: a whole lot of lime, some minerals (iron, etc.) and some seed to fill in some of the blank spots. The middle and upper fields still need a lot of attention: this year all they got was a grazing and a good, through mowing.

The lower field has a small hill, most of which has very spotty clumps of grass and a little bit of clover. I overseeded with clover and orchard grass. I also got about a dozen 40 pound bags of compost. I spread these very thinly in the bare patches over the seed. I was hoping that the compost would help capture and retain a little bit of moisture and aid in germination. I was also wanting to add some organic matter to the soil (it is rather sandy/rocky in that area - we live in the "granite state" after all). It appears to have worked. For a couple of weeks after seeding, there was no germination. Then we (finally) got a few hours of rain and within a couple of days there was massive germination where the compost had been spread. In the other areas, there was some germination but probably only one percent as much. My next grass project with the middle and upper fields is to apply lime and overseed.

We moved the sheep every day or two. Each time, we set up electro net fence around the next paddock, flop the fence down between the old and new and the sheep hop to the fresh grass. Catherine worked on training the sheep to come to a shaken can of grain, and it worked (especially with the ewes) - any time the sheep got loose or we had to move them between fenced areas, we enticed them with grain. This is definitely lower stress than trying to herd them to the right place.

We have 42-inch fence, but we found that the Blueface Leicester has no problem hopping over it. One of the lamb ewes went for fresh grass on her own whenever we didn't move them soon enough. We also found that our engergizer is not strong enough. With just one section of fence, we had in excess of 5K volts (a good deterrent). With four sections of fence, we had 2.5K volts (not a very good deterrent) - I often saw the sheep grazing fresh grass through the fence! I bought a much stronger energizer a couple of weeks ago, but didn't get a chance to hook it up before we ran out of grass. I picked the strongest one the supplier sold (and the only one with which they are trying to upsell warning signs).

I have some ideas about how to ease the process of moving the sheep around the fields - I will discuss those another time.

As the grass was running out, I built a second permanent pen near the barn. We moved the ewes to the large pen and the rams to the small (new) pen. I am now in the process of building a combination sheep shed and chicken coop. The shed is adjacent to the large pen, and I will just take down a section of fence to provide access to the shed.

The sheep are now on hay. I am able to get hay in small volumes all winter from a nearby horse facility at $6.50 a bale (for now). This is cheaper than the local grain store ($7.25 a bale). It looks like they are eating about a bale per day. I am flushing the ewes with whole corn right now and plan to mate them in about three weeks.