#15 Rotational Grazing

My first year of owning a small flock of sheep was a hard lesson, although good one. I battled the year with learning about small ruminant parasites, de-wormers, signs and symptoms of illness, pasture health, and even death.

I got my first sheep from someone who appeared to know a lot about what they were doing, but stepping back and looking at their practices, that clearly wasn’t the case. My first hard lesson was that you should always quarantine new sheep, even if they are the only sheep you have an are new to the property. The first two sheep I brought home were riddled with parasites, and luckily enough, parasites that were resistant to de-wormer. My pastures had never seen a sheep before, only horses, so there was no possible way for small ruminant parasites to be on my land.

I was battling worms every day, it felt like. I was constantly checking their lower eye lids using the FAMACHA scoring to evaluate them for anemia. I had a whole arsenal of various de-wormers, all kinds of drugs like thiamine and iron. It was expensive to have my shelves stocked all at once, for total fear of my new sheep dying on me from something I had to work non-stop to prevent.

Later that summer I brought home another sheep, she was a lamb, and from the same place. Her name was Winnie. Once again I really didn’t think that they needed to be quarantined because they were all from the same farm, and once again I didn’t think that I needed to keep my pastures safe.

Just as a note – I really truly believed that de-worming sheep basically every week was a normal practice and that everyone did that. If you wanted to keep sheep, you needed to drench them with chemicals regularly just to keep them alive. In hindsight, that is just a completely crazy thought. Especially when there are far better practices that are easier and cheaper!

That lamb I brought home ended up dying, which was absolutely soul crushing. I was constantly giving her medications to treat her anemia, and everything I did just wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to believe it was from worms. How could it be if I was dumping chemicals into my sheep routinely. I had a necropsy (animal autopsy) done and it was ruled that she died from anemia caused by Barber Pole worm (which is the worst parasite).

Once learning this, I really had to re-evaluate my practices. I was well below stocking density for the pastures, but I still had a horrendous parasite problem in my fields. I read up on pasture rotation to manage parasites. It involves keeping livestock to one area of land at a time, and then rotating them in line with the grass growth, weather, and parasite life cycle.

The cycle works like this – eggs are deposited on the ground through manure from livestock. The eggs eventually hatch and the larva live on the dew and moisture in the grass. When the grass is short or the moisture content in the pastures is high, the livestock ingest the larva. The larva make their way down to the stomach, liver, lungs, etc. There’s a whole variety of parasites that we have to be diligent about. The larva develop into worms and live inside the animal, feeding on blood and nutrients. The worms lay eggs, and the eggs are deposited back onto the pastures with the manure and the cycle repeats. The cycle can be sped up or slowed down depending on the temperatures. Development slows when the weather is colder and speeds up when its warmer. The amount of moisture on the pastures also plays a large part, as the larva stay hydrated and alive on the dampness of the grass, but in the blazing summer, they struggle to thrive. It would be nice if parasites died off in the winter, but they can go dormant, which is another lovely fact about these pests.

With pasture rotation, you want to maintain a certain grass blade height. Most parasites live on the first few inches of the grass blade, so the shorter the grass, the greater the mouthful of parasites the animal ingests. If you can time the movement of the animals from one pasture to another based on the growth rate and the cycle of the parasites, you can significantly reduce the incidence of parasite overloads. Anyone interested in keeping livestock or any animal, should research pasture rotation and maintenance for parasite control. There are so many studies about it, and this has been a practice for centuries!

After losing Winnie, I knew I needed to start working on improving my pastures for rotational grazing. I bought a ton of T-posts, plastic insulators, and electric wire for fencing. In the blazing summer heat, my mother and I pounded in T-posts and put up electric fencing. This method worked great and I finally gained an upper hand to the parasites.

We have been working since last year putting up permanent fencing to make the quadrants and have added an additional acre for our grazing plan. In March 2021 we completed soil sampling and spread organic chicken manure fertilizer over the pastures to help improve the soil quality. We then reseeded the pasture with orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, fescue and red clover. The difference between now and last year’s pastures is astounding.

Another method we are implementing is electronetting. There are five pastures and each pasture will be split with electronetting and a solar charger. The animals will be on a half acre for 5-7 days and then rotated to the next pasture. This will ultimately allow each paddock to have a rest period of a minimum of 45 days, enough to let grass grow, manure to decompose into the soil, and parasites to die off. The link to our pasture layout here shows how the pastures will be divided.

We will follow up with fertilizer the pastures for another two years and then repeat a soil test to see how things have improved. With a healthy pasture, we should be able to keep our livestock healthy. I’m very excited for what this year brings to the flock and hope to keep records and updates on how our farm is going. I wish I knew what I know now back then. As long as a lesson was learned and I utilize that, it was worth the struggles and challenges.