Better than a mower: Friesian sheep cutting grass
Here’s the thing about buying a farm property with 20 acres of pasture: the grass grows whether you want it to or not.
As spring arrived, we were in a race against mother nature. What to do about all that grass? I knew we didn’t want to purchase a mower. What’s the point of building a “sustainable” grass livestock operation if you’re running over the fields with a gas hog spewing CO2? But it would be months, if not years, before we had all our animals in place to graze those pastures. First, we needed a perimeter fence to keep our livestock in and predators out. Then we needed to start buying animals.
While still living in D.C., I called the extension service for Washington County and talked about installing some sheep on the property. The agent in charge of livestock first wanted to take soil samples. So I met him on the property. The test results came back positive: the pH level was close enough to neutral (around 6.2) that we didn’t need to lime the fields. The soil is a bit low in phosphorous. But I told the agent we weren’t interested in amending the pastures, we wanted the livestock to build the soil and bring it more into balance naturally.
The agent put a request for ewes on a listserv that goes out to sheep and goat farmers around the region. Sheep are docile and fairly undemanding. I figured a dozen ewes or so would be a good start. We’d already ordered five Dorper lambs–that’s a breed of hair sheep, meaning they shed rather than make wool–to be picked up in spring 2014.
While our request was broadcast over the internet, I continued to make inquiries locally and came across a sheep farming couple who’s well known for their flock of Friesian sheep and the cheese they produce.
Friesians are especially prized for their milk production. A German breed, they are wool sheep, meaning they will have to be shorn some months down the road. I was hoping to avoid all that with hair sheep. But now I was beginning to think it might not be such a bad thing to have two different kinds of sheep. Who knows? We might like making sheep’s cheese.
The wife was incredibly helpful when I visited their farm: she asked to see an aerial view of our property, and proceeded to draw a plan for paddocks and fencing. Then she showed me six yearling ewes that, for one reason or another, had run afoul of the lambing and milking schedule. Either their lambs had been stillborn, or the lambs had died, or they weren’t producing enough milk.
All six were destined for the slaughterhouse. The price I’d pay was “meat value.” In addition, there were two old ewes on the property–one 11, the other 14–that the owner offered to throw into the bargain as a moderating influence on the younger sheep.
We sealed the deal right there. By now, my grass was starting to get tall. I needed a mowing team fast. Our fence contractor, who was busy installing posts for the electric perimeter fence, quickly shifted gears and built a permanent paddock with woven wire fencing somewhat more than 10,000 square feet in size. That will be the area where we can house the sheep in winter if we need to, deal with lambing or veterinary issues, or gather sheep for transport.
Expert landscapers, no fossil fuels required
Yesterday, our new landscaping crew arrived in a trailer. The truck backed up to the gate, we opened the door, and the sheep trotted out into their new quarters and immediately set to work.
Chomp, chomp, chomp.
These guys eat grass practically all day long, rain or shine. As soon as they’ve trimmed one area, we’ll use portable electric fencing to move them to another. Their poop and pee enriches the soil, encouraging all kinds of microbes and tiny critters that nourish the grass and discourage weeds. It’s exactly the kind of virtuous cycle we want to establish on our farm, so that diversity abounds and our livestock flourish naturally and without a lot of chemicals, hay, grain feeds or other expensive inputs.
Next to consider: how we get these younger ewes pregnant in the fall so we have lambs next year.