Essays

Multi-Species Rotational Grazing

A mixture of annual and perennial plants is important in a healthy pasture. Perennial grasses, such as intermediate wheat and brome, root deeply and help build soil structure and prevent erosion, while also providing greenery later into the dry season for our animals to graze (8ft deep roots can tap deep water!). Annuals such as dandelion, plantain, yarrow, chicory, and vetch provide important sources of nutrition to our livestock, flowers for pollinators, and legumes which contribute nutrition to the soil for grasses to feed off of.

Invasive plants are easier to control in a rotational system, since animals are less likely to pick and choose only grasses, but eat down a variety of what’s there in one paddock before moving onto the next. We raise a breed of sheep that particularly loves to eat ‘weeds’!

 What is Rotational Grazing?

Using a rotational system is extremely important in all pasture management, but especially so when dry-farming.

Rather than allow our animals to graze one area all year — as is common in conventional systems — we move them from place to place in order to broaden their diet and allow the plants and land to rest in between grazings, which leads to greater soil health and better production over the course of a year.

With rotational grazing, the animals are allowed to graze a smaller section of pasture (1/4 – 1 acre) for a brief period of time (anywhere from 1 day to a few weeks, depending on the animal), allowing the plants to retain enough stem and leaf matter that the following spring they can regrow vigorously (many grass species enjoy this, like mowing your lawn!). Because of the dry conditions at our farm, we often only visit a specific part of the pasture once or twice a year to be careful not to over-graze the plants.

Each year, manure deposited by grazing animals will contribute to the organic matter content of our soil, and subsequently the moisture-holding capacity, which would allow for more visits to each part of the pasture in a year without negative impacts. Moving the animals around also ensures that manure is more evenly distributed over the pasture, preventing manure build-up and run-off. When spread evenly, nitrogen can be used more easily by the pasture plants and sequestered into soil-forming vegetation rather than ending up in our streams and rivers.

What is Multi-Species?

In our pastures, we use a variety of animal species: chickens, ducks, rabbits, and sheep. Each of these animals have different preferences in terms of which types of vegetation they like to eat and which types of soil fertility they leave behind after they pass — raising a diversity of animals goes hand in hand with the diversity of vegetative species we like to see in our pastures!

Multiple species benefit one another because:

  • a) They typically do no share parasites, so a pasture recently grazed by sheep won’t pass parasites onto your chickens
  • b) Species like chickens will actually eat the parasites and fly larvae from sheep manure, making that pasture cleaner more quickly and allowing more rotations of cattle on that piece of land in a year
  • c) There is different composition of nutrients in the manures of different types of animals, so your pastures will be receiving the best of all worlds and grow more vigorously from exposure to several species rather than just one.

Poultry are an integral part of our operation because they provide much-needed concentrated fertility to parts of our farm that have been neglected for many years and need extra help rebuilding nutrition and organic matter in the soil. Areas grazed with poultry one year are more productive for sheep grazing the next.

We also practice diversified livestock as a risk management strategy for our farm — a farm producing only cattle can be completely devastated by disease or famine specific to cows. A diversified operation is more resilient to the unexpected, and we are all about resiliency and the sustainability of our business and our ability to provide food in our region!

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