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The grass is looking fantastic this spring, we’ve had a great mix of warm weather and rain. The abundant feed is a gift, but it comes with the overhead of moving fencing every few days. I was able to start grass rotation on the south property March 5th, and the sheep just returned to that area two weeks ago. It is reed canarygrass (RCG) so though they grazed it down to nubbins in March, it is already taller than me and forming seed heads! It is both a very productive, and vexing grass.

Here’s what it looks like at eye level to me when I move the sheep into a new spot:

Of course, it’s impossible to set hotwire in this thicket, so first I drive around the perimeter several times with the ATV to flatten out a path so the fence won’t short out on too much wet grass.

Some people mow, but this area is wet and peat-boggy enough that it’s risky getting the tractor in there in spring. The ATV is much lighter and has fat tires, so it floats on top of the RCG well. As do the sheep feet, for the most part.

The RCG looks really dense upon first inspection. Within a day, the sheep start to trample it, and consume quite a bit.

This particular area has been fallow for quite a few years. What I think happens is, RCG (a non-native grass species) tends to actually kill itself long-term. It creates so much biomass that,  when not grazed or mowed, it literally composts and chokes itself out over time. Once the sheep get in there and work it a little bit more, you can see how much bare ground there is, and mud, because there isn’t as much grass taking up water here as there could be.

I expect this to improve as we graze it more; we’ve found this to be true elsewhere. When grazed and worked by sheep feet, and fertilized by poop and pee, the grass fills in, it takes up more water, there is less mud, and plant diversity also starts to appear, eliminating the unhealthy monoculture.

In less wet areas, the grass starts to create a dry mat from being trampled. Behind the fence, you can see the “before” grass.

Below is a lovely picture of a very productive ewe and her triplet ram lambs. You can see her surrounded by grass stems and a few nettles; the sheep leave these behind.

RCG gets really stemmy when it’s mature like this, and the sheep are only interested in eating its leaves. Wherever I can, I mow behind them. This not only knocks down the unsightly leftovers, it has another purpose. Many people know about the term “apical dominance” as it applies to trees, especially fruit trees. It is the phenomenon where, when a plant has a tall “central leader” branch that grows vertically, it sends hormones down the rest of the plant signaling the side branches not to grow as fast. This is what gives most trees their “columnar” shape. Bushes have less apical dominance, which is why they are rounder in form; and “weeping” trees have little to none, which is why they grow long side branches that droop. Grass plants also obey apical dominance, so it’s important to knock back those stems, so that the whole plant gets the green light to start growing and getting bushy again.

I find that whether the RCG is 18” tall or 8’ tall, the sheep get about the same utilization out of a square. After they walk and pee on it a lot, they don’t want to eat what’s left, and they complain! I want them to be in pig-out mode, not in picky mode, for best weight gains; so I oblige and move them even when I can see there is still smashed food left in the square. This leaves a lot of trampled grass behind, but it’s ok. It’s ground into the soil, which adds organic matter to feed future cycles of growth. But it ultimately opens up the ground-level grass and other forage plants to air and sunlight, allowing the graze to flourish and diversify.

When the lambs are little, every pasture rotation is an ordeal. They don’t know the routine, they aren’t paying attention, they get left behind when the adults rush to the new section, then it’s a chasing battle to shoo them where they need to go. Ewes come back into the old square in a panic looking for their lambs, and it’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back getting all the sheep on the new side and staying there. But by now, with the lambs being two+months old, they are getting it down. It’s a relief to have the whole herd know the drill, I holler and call, they rush to the fence and bellow back, all queuing up in anticipation of the move to fresh grass. When I have them all close and paying attention, I open it up, let them rush through, then close the fence behind them. Sheep can be dumb about a lot of things, but they are smart about the routines of food!

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