Small Flock Pasture Management

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At weaning time, you will need your best pastures in tip top shape for your lambs to continue growing. Your free input resource must be managed throughout the late spring and summer. This can be challenging with limited equipment and modest grazing space. Rotational grazing techniques are helpful and can be complimented with proactive management.

Early in the warmer seasons, cool season grasses and forbs are dominant and provide great forage. As the temperatures climb, the availability of palatable grasses and plants decline. Grasses can go to seed too quickly to graze your animals on them. Rain followed by hot daytime temperatures cause the grasses to bolt. Often you just cannot keep up! Mowing in a timely fashion helps combat this bolt. Regular lawn mowers will cut grass too short. Pull behind mowers or brush mowers have the ability to mow the grass at 6–8-inch lengths which still allows for good grass length. If you do not have a tractor, a riding lawnmower or 4-wheeler can easily tow a pull behind mower such as a Swisher brand. For smaller, tighter areas of grass heading out, string trimmers can knock the tops off of the grass while again leaving a good amount of height on your forage. Managing grasses in this way is especially important when you’re dealing with a limited amount of acreage. You must maximize every bit of grazing space for your growing lambs.

When the summer days are long and hot, endophytes are your enemy. Some grasses simply are not palatable and in fact toxic. Ensure your paddocks are diverse in forage for your lambs. If there are areas of lush growth that your sheep simply are not eating, these forages may have high nitrate concentrations (usually near a barnyard or heavily soiled area). Give your sheep larger grazing space near these areas. Dilution is the solution! If you have wooded areas, maximize use of those areas during the hottest periods for shade. Shade is not only important in reducing stress, it keeps your animals grazing throughout the day.

Be proactive and plant small grazing areas of warm season annuals. This is especially helpful if your fields are lacking diversity and do not offer many palatable options. With capable equipment (owned, rented, or borrowed), designated paddocks can be planted by drill or slit seeder without tilling. Keep your existing grass intact by mowing almost to the ground or taking advantage of bare spots in the field. A simple disk cultivator can be used with a tractor to open the soil, seed, and then disked once again to cover over seed. If you want to work in small sections, plan out strips for planting your grazing crop in multiple zones.

No tractor? A pull behind de-thatcher works great to expose soil. In addition, a pull behind aerator run over the area a few times offers pits for larger seed to fall into. Hand-seed a variety of grazing annuals. Some examples are: Black oil forage sunflower and annual rye, Sorghum Sudan and forage clover, and millet grasses. All of these can be purchased in small amounts (4-10# bags) and seeded by hand. Rake over by hand or with the de-thatcher. Mulch lightly with bedding straw or waste hay and time the planting before a moderate rain. Protect the areas with electric netting until they are mature. Soon you will have additional forage for your lambs during the summer slump! 

This same process can be used in late summer to plant fall grazing crops such as winter wheat, Italian rye, turnips and other brassicas. Graze the areas aggressively once or modestly on various occasions to exploit the resource to its full potential. These rich forages also offer fantastic flushing potential. Utilize the spent areas where you planted your warm season annuals as a new bed for perennial grasses and legumes that can be seeded in the fall

By: Allison Rudd, Oxberry Farm, EAPK Member


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