I’ve been juggling sheep around quite a bit to try to maximize use of our grass. It’s tricky trying to keep the grass in the phase 2 growth stage all summer. The concept is easy enough, put grazers on a patch towards the end of the phase 2 growth curve, when it’s got maximum mass, then take them out when they’ve grazed it to the point where it would almost be in phase 1. You want to try to keep the grass out of phase 1, because it struggles to get out of that stage and wastes time; and also stay away from phase 3, where the grass blows out to seed. Once it hits that phase 3, it’s less palatable so the sheep eat less, its less nutritious, and its wanting to go dormant instead of push back into a growth phase.
This is easier said than done, however. We usually have to mow a couple of times during the summer to keep the grass out of phase 3; because at some point our sheep can’t keep up with the volume. It’s always a gamble knowing what the weather will do. If it rains and is 65 degrees for two weeks, our grass will rocket into phase 3 and start to seed out, I’ll regret not having mowed earlier. If there is a dry spell, sometimes I wish I hadn’t mowed, instead using a stockpile to weather the drought. While my city coworkers lament any summer day that rains and cheer when we have long stretches of hot sun, I am always internally wishing for rain at least once a week to keep the grass growing.
We are lucky in that our river valley is very damp most evenings; as the fog rolls in and night temperatures dip, our pastures become saturated with dew. This really helps the grass stay hydrated and growing when most other people’s pastures have dried to a crisp. It’s one of the many tradeoffs of managing floodplain land. The only exception is when we have long stretches of 80-something weather, the nights stay warmer and drier, and the dew mostly disappears.
I have our ram and wether group grazing the hillsides, this small group of two-dozen takes about a week to graze one “square” of hotwire there. This is nice to not have to move the hotwire so often, so I can get other things done during these long summer days. I only have one Electronet setup, so this means the 50-some ewes have been set-stocked loose in one of our big pastures.
At the end of July, our reed canary grass (RCG) field was getting to be nearly hip-high. The sheep don’t like it so much when it gets tall, and they leave stems behind when they graze. I also don’t like it because I can’t see the sheep well in it; it takes more time to check on them, and I can miss a sheep that’s down. So, I mowed it late July and put the ewes in the other field. Then we had a very dry August, and I was biting my nails wondering if there would be enough grass in our far pasture to last. For a few weeks, the RCG looked like it sat and did nothing, and I worried it had gone dormant in the summer heat and dry. But, lo, RCG is a tough plant, and has roots as tall as me. In digging some postholes last weekend in that field, it could be seen that the water table is just a couple feet down; so grass with long roots can find it. Mowing tall RCG puts grass back in phase 1, as it takes away all of the leafy parts and just leaves stems, so the plants have to start over. But start over they did, and already that field is ready to graze again.
Just in time, as the ewes are pushing the limit on over-grazing our far field. This is the trouble with set-stocking, the sheep don’t graze evenly in a large area. They wander all about, and choose their favorite things; and sometimes seem to just randomly over-graze some areas out of habit. They go easy on the stands of RCG in that field (the very species that needs pushy grazing the most), graze medium on the orchard grass, and are hard on the timothy, rye and fescues; as well as the other forbs, like clover and dandelion. I don’t prefer this, of course, as it starts to push the pasture towards less species diversity. Eventually, I’ll invest in more hotwire so I can do rotational grazing in multiple places. But that’s a a project for another year.
I figure the rams can hang out on the hillside for several more weeks, and possibly indefinitely if I just keep rotating them through. The ewes should stay busy on the RCG for at least three weeks, hopefully longer if it keeps growing while they’re in there. That should give our far field a nice rest, so it can build up and be ready for fall. I can graze that in October, then have RCG stockpiled for November; and hopefully postpone the beginning of hay feeding until Thanksgiving. At least, that’s the plan until nature changes it!