Unexpected Benefits From Pasture Farming

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

The biggest problem in pasture farming, that is raising farm animals almost entirely on pastures without much annual soil cultivation for grains, is internal parasites, especially in the more humid parts of the country. Parasitic worms hatch into the larval stage in the soil and crawl up the grass stems where they are ingested by the grazing animals. The worms’ eggs then pass out of the animals in the manure, and cycle back through the soil and up the grass stems to be ingested again. As pasture farmers increase livestock numbers because they have learned how to increase the carrying capacity of their pastures, the more the problem is exacerbated and the more they have to rely on various wormers. Treating sheep with vermifuges three times a summer has become necessary in some cases and even that may not do the job very well. Internal parasites seem to be growing immune to the usual medications, necessitating the use of different, stronger and more expensive ones.

We shepherds have learned that taking the animals off a pasture for a month does not break the worm cycle on that pasture, as used to be commonly believed. However a pasture not grazed for a year can eliminate or greatly reduce infestation. Medieval farmers resorted to dividing their land into two parts and alternately grazing only half in any given year. But today, graziers don’t think they can afford to pasture only half their land (so much for progress) and put hay or grain alternately in the other half. That would mean doing annual cultivation of half the farm every year thereby losing the cost-saving advantages of permanent or nearly permanent pasture.

But there might be an effective compromise that rotational grazing makes possible. At least it has worked for us so far— keep your fingers crossed.  In earlier years, we had gotten to the point where we had to worm the sheep three times a summer to keep them healthy.   (Sheep with stomach worms have pale eyes, scraggly wool, invariably have rear ends coated with manure, and the lambs do not gain weight efficiently.)  Now we are back to only one worming a year and I have hopes of eliminating the job completely.

We have experimented with various schedules and carrying rates on our rotated pastures to arrive at what seems, all things considered, the best for us: a division into eight plots of about an acre and a half in size, with two other woodsy plots grazed only irregularly to give the animals a chance to eat acorns and walnut leaves and other wild plants traditionally thought to be helpful in controlling internal parasites. Each of the eight plots, or paddocks as graziers call them, is grazed for one week at a time and then the sheep are moved on to the next. That means any given plot has sheep on it only one week roughly every two months. In a grazing season of eight months, each plot is visited only one month (four separate weeks) out of the year at two months intervals. Parasitic worms do not have a chance to build up high populations under this regimen. The animals are allowed the run of all the plots in winter because worms aren’t active in cold weather. Although this is not quite once-a-year grazing, it seems to work so far.

To help this kind of parasite control, I usually mow a  paddock following one or two of  its four grazing periods  to control weeds that the animals might not have eaten and to encourage lush new growth of grass and clover. Mowing helps control worms, so the books say.

I’m sure that part of the reason we have had success this way is that we don’t overcrowd our pastures. We keep around 20 ewes on about 14 acres. From April until October, there will be another 20 to 30 lambs too,  or altogether, roughly about three and a half head per acre. Normal carrying capacity on our kind of soil and climate is five sheep per acre.  A commercial shepherd might find  our stocking rate too low to be profitable, but I wonder. If we can eliminate internal parasites we might make as much net profit with a low carrying rate.

I can’t resist sharing another, somewhat humorous benefit from rotational grazing. When the sheep see me coming to switch them into another plot, they run ahead of me like a herd of crazed buffaloes to the gate, then turn around and stare at me expectantly. They know the routine.

I used to wish I had a good border collie to help me move the sheep.  Now I don’t need one. All I have to do is stand at a gate, any gate, and call a bit and no matter where the sheep are, they will come running. The grass where they are grazing might still be good,  but if the master is calling, it must be better on the other side of the fence. Finally they will even come into the barn lot without being driven if I stand at the gate and call. Going through gates just gets to be a habit with them, an indication of better things to come. Wish it were that easy to instill hope in human society in these paranoid days.
See also Gene’s Our Ewes Are Having Lots Of Lambs, But Is More Better?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © John Manning | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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Re the last posting. This filled me with a mixture of delight and horror. Delight that at last there may be a trend towards mainstream ‘natural’ farming as Gene and others have been advocating for decades but horror that scientists have to actually do studies to find out if it works, why and how best to incorporate it into agricultural practices. How have we gone so far off the tracks so quickly?

Thanks for the link; it was an eye-opener, to me anyway.

Gene, I just came across this video and article, and thought it shows how your ideas are being realized by others, even conventional farmers. Here is the link: http://cookingupastory.com/tranthams-sustainable-12-aprils-dairy-grazing-program

    Menachem, Thanks for link. Yes, accentuating grazing is a growing trend. Just can’t beat plain old economics. Gene

Greg, a friend who has Katahdins tells me they get worms just about as bad as other sheep. But yes, you don’t have to shear. I keep hoping the wool market comes back. Gene Logsdon

We have Katahdin hair sheep, I have been told that they are more immune to internal parasites. Have you heard of this before?

At least with hair sheep you do not have to dock tails and shear them, less work.

Granny, that’s a good one about the church bells. Believe it or not, I used to be able to hear church bells chiming from my place, but they switched to some godawful electronic chiming that doesn’t carry like the old belfry bell. I wonder if you could train sheep to come on the third chiming… if you used enough peanut butter cookies. Gene

I have found some years seem to be worse for worms than other years.
I have noticed more problems during very wet Springs & Summers.
Some folks say that feeding pumpkins will cut down on worms but I don’t believe it.

I still follow the old time advice about never letting the church bell ring 3 times on the same pasture.
I try to move them often.

I have bratty sheep too.

They come a running when they seeing me or if I call to them.
In fact they come charging in from up to a 1/4 mile away when I call- no kidding.

I took some trouble to train them and I believe my sheep would follow me to the gates of Hell…. so long as I keep carrying cheap peanut butter sandwich cookies in my pockets 🙂

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