How we graze our sheep, and why.

How we graze our sheep, and why.

Sheep grazing in a meadow with a white electric fence in the background

You may notice the white fences in all of our sheep photos. They are portable electric fences, energized with a small solar panel. I have about six or seven of these fences, each about 160 feet long, and I will set up anywhere from one to four of them at a time to make a pen for the sheep to graze in. I do this pretty much every day when the grass is growing. If the ground is wet, I set up bigger pens and move the sheep through them faster to protect the roots of the plants.

It’s a daily chore to graze sheep this way, and takes time, skill, observation, and experience to manage it well. But I enjoy the challenge and the benefits are so numerous that I can hardly even order them by importance. So I will just start going through them as I think of them.

Safety. Keeping the sheep in tight groups keeps them safe. Before the domestication of animals and the creation of large open ranches for grazing, herd animals always moved together in tight flocks. Predators prefer to pick off a stray animal than to risk being challenged by the strength of the herd; in a one-to-one match, a mountain lion can easily take a sheep, but a single lion would be rightfully wary of a charging herd of 50 sheep. So keep the flock grouped together in a pen makes them less of a lure to apex predators like mountain lions.

Healthy forage. When put into one large pasture to graze, sheep will seek out the grasses they prefer and eat them first. After making more rounds, they will come back and continue to chew down their preferred grasses, until the grass can no longer re-grow. Eventually the preferred grasses will die out, leaving a pasture of inferior grazing material. By rotating the sheep to new pasture every day instead, they only eat a little of their favorite things, which will then have a chance to put down deeper roots and grow further. We have seen preferred forages grow back better and healthier each year because of this.

Supporting native plants. Overgrazing in our area led to the destruction of native plant ecosystems as tougher invasive perennials took over. In our region, native hardy annuals are ephemeral, greening up early in the winter rains and dying back when the heat sets in, while invasive species persist through the dry season, crowding out native perennial grasses that would otherwise stay green in the summer and early fall. What we have done to manage this is allow the sheep to graze down the invasives pretty hard during the dry season- leaving them in pens longer so that they really take down the species that we don’t want. When the rains come, the native species suddenly have a chance to sprout and grow without heavy competition. Then we graze them only lightly during the spring to allow them to deepen their roots and keep growing through the summer. Having done this for three springs now we are seeing incredible resurgence in both annual and perennial native species throughout the meadow.

Reducing fuel and lowering risk of catastrophic wildfire. Overgrazing, poor logging practices, increased human habitation, poor forest management, historic wildfires, erroneous interventions, and changes in climate and weather patterns have drastically increased the risk of catastrophic wildfire in our region. The widespread seeding of Harding grass in the late 70’s introduced this pervasive grass which, left unmowed or ungrazed, will put forth tall thick stalks of grass that can reach five feet in height or more, which dry in place as the heat sets in and remain standing even through heavy winds and winter rains. This particular species thus poses a grave risk as a standing fuel ladder.

Our management protocol has been to create small, tight pens around Harding grass patches in late winter, when fresh grass begins to grow at the base of the old standing dead stalks. We put the sheep in these small areas to increase their ability to trample down the dead grass in close quarters, and further assist by placing appealing piles of organic alfalfa pellets right in the heart of dead grass stalks. I will also take a moment every time I walk through the pens to crush down whatever I walk by in my muck boots. As the grass rebounds quickly in the winter weather, we will re-visit the same area two or more times over the wet season, letting the sheep trample over the dead clumps again and again. Eventually all of the dead tall stalks are taken down; the thick dead clumps are broken up; and everything quickly decomposes into the soil. Other species then have a chance to grow, and the sheep graze the Harding grass often enough that it never has the energy to send up tall seedheads again. In this way we are slowly reducing the spread and growth of this plant as well as removing the fuel load.

Co-existing with wildlife. We have made a choice to raise domestic animals in a wildland setting. It is our responsibility to keep these domestic animals safe while also respecting the existence and right to life of the natural predators in our region, including mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes, all of which are frequently sighted in our meadow.

The electric fences are an effective deterrent to the coyotes, who lead with their noses and receive a profound shock when their wet nose touch the hot fence. As long as we are vigilant about correctly grounding the solar charger and keeping the battery from draining, we ensure that the fences are providing the appropriate charge. Every few months, coyotes and bobcats become more daring and approach us with less fear. At that time we use a loud sound to scare them off, harmless to them but a warning nonetheless.

To deter cat predators, who can easily jump a fence without ever touching it, we set out a small rechargable radio just outside the pen, as the sound of human voices is a good deterrent. (Plus it’s nice for the sheep to be informed on the news of the day.) At night, putting the sheep in a very small pen, just big enough for all of them to lie down, provides even more protection. Ideally, they would be completely enclosed in a roofed structure at night so that even a very motivated cat could not get in, but that can be expensive to build and difficult to move the sheep into every evening, especially if rotating grazing over a large area. We have two such pens now and hope to build an additional two or more.

Close connection to the animals and the land. Moving the sheep every day and choosing new areas of the land on which to set up pens each day requires me to assess both very frequently. I am up close and literally in touch with all of the sheep every day; I know who is prone to limp occasionally, who is near to giving birth, who is likely to bolt and pull the whole flock off their path, who enjoys a good back scratching. If any of the sheep need to be handled for any reason, they are accustomed to my presence and fairly easy to get in hand.

By walking the land each day, I gain an ever-deepening knowledge of what plants are growing, where water flows, where invasive species are popping up, which birds like to follow our grazing, what other animals are building nests or foraging nearby. The fellow inhabitants of the meadow- rabbits, deer, kites, hawks, small birds of all kinds- regard me as a familiar presence and often observe me as I observe them. I am never alone in the meadow, but rather in the company of countless other living beings and growing things, familiar with the variations in ways the wind blows over the landscape, the direction storms take, the way there are waves of brief blooms of spring, oaks leafing out in the sun and shade.

Healthier landscape. We’ve discussed how frequent moves allow for more plant species diversity. But keeping the sheep in frequent motion across the landscape also prevents them from creating eroded areas as they traverse preferred pathways to shade and water sources. In our fixed, hard-fenced pasture, where we keep our breeding rams, previous flocks created paths all over the field, where now nothing grows and the rains pool up and run down them, creating further erosion. There are also larger areas of heavy manure in our fixed pasture, where the sheep return again and again to access water or receive supplemental food and minerals. In contrast, in the meadow where we change our pen size, shape, and placement continuously, there are no such paths, and manure is spread out evenly across the landscape, quickly decomposing and enriching the soil evenly.

Healthy, resilient flocks. Sheep that graze broadly on diverse pasture develop knowledge of the forages to seek and ones to avoid. Lupine is toxic to sheep, and yet we safely graze our sheep over areas where lupine is emerging in the spring, because we see how they will graze around it but not consume it. They also graze safely through thickets of bracken fern, also poisonous when the ferns are fully unfurled, for they will only eat the unfurled fiddleheads in early spring. When we move them quickly onto fresh pasture, they never start to eat forages that are dangerous to them; that has only happened when we leave them on one pasture for too long. Our sheep give birth while out on pasture and raise healthy, resilient lambs who are immediately integrated into the flock and develop healthy behaviors.

Mutual reliance. I feed the sheep and the sheep feed me. The sheep are brought out to pasture before I have my breakfast and brought in to safety at night before I have dinner. Each year we breed them and each year the rams of last spring are either sold to be bred elsewhere or otherwise harvested for food for our family and for our community members. In the wild, male herd mammals must compete for breeding dominance within flocks and this competition is often deadly. We acknowledge that death is a necessary partner to life and that all living things rely on other livings things for sustenance. We are grateful to be able to give our animals a life that is aligned to their natures and a death that is fast and painless, far better than the death they would almost certainly experience in the wild. We are privileged to be able to eat animals that graze our landscape and to have a closed loop of sustenance.

Knowledgeable land stewardship. There is no greater teacher than experience, no amount of reading or classwork or theory that can compare to the strength of a daily lived practice of doing. I did not know very much about managing sheep when I began; in fact, I had learned many things in error and needed to come to new and better conclusions on my own. I love to read scientific texts as they relate to health and medicine, but trying to read the literature on effective grazing made my head spin, as so many of the baseline concepts were completely unfamiliar to me. I tried to take an online course but it had the same soporific effect. But in the meantime, I had these sheep, who needed to be cared for each day. So I simply got up early every morning, and after watching the sunrise while drinking my tea, I would head out in my muck boots and get to work.

Now, five years later, with a mixed flock of 40 sheep, I know this landscape intimately, I know the sheep’s behaviors well, and I learn more each and every day. My body is strong from hauling rolled fence panels over the rolling meadow on foot, from sprinting down the road ahead of a racing flock toward a new pen, from picking up a squirming, runaway 40-pound ram lamb to deposit him over the fence back to his mother, from balancing on one leg while I pull the bottom of a fence line taut with the other foot and pound in a stake with a heavy mallet. The grass is thicker, greener, and longer lived. I’ve learned which herbs to harvest for a bucket of tea to add to the water trough with a little molasses when the sheep have runny noses in the winter. I’ve learned what weather is coming days in advance, by the shift in the wind and the moisture in the air. I’ve worked to make the landscape safer each year, healthier each year. The wildlife in the field knows me, and I them. In this world of increasing loneliness and separation, I have been lucky enough to become connected and collaborative with the living things around me.

It is a commitment, to care for livestock in this way, a commitment of time and labor, but also of presence, responsibility, connection and intention. It’s a choice I was lucky to be able to make, a rare possibility in a world where the potential profit of any activity is often the primary if not sole measure of practicality. I do this work because to needs to be done, and from it I earn from peace, strength, vitality, sustenance, and love- a far better income than most.