The bigger picture and patience in growing a farm’s pastures

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Building up a small farm's soil to support grazing is a long process, aided by the work of animals like sheep, at Farei Kennels, in Maine. (Farei Kennels photo)

I talk a lot about the individual aspects of the farm I live on. They all have a story, a journey that brought us to where we are today.

Small scale, or sustenance farming, is the evolution of a system, a living breathing ecosystem that supports the individual components and creates a successful whole.

Researching historical farming practices, combined with modern scientific tools, helps us understand how those systems work together. Some of it requires going back and fixing things that were done in ignorance or replacing components of the system that aren’t working well.

Building a foundation

I grew up on this property and spent a large portion of my childhood hauling brush and clearing pasture. As an adult, I watch the way those portions of cleared land react differently to the areas of silvopasture I have been creating since I returned. The animals, too, respond differently.

Crowding under the few shade trees along one border, they forgo the man made shelters for the ones created by nature. As the August sun burns the grass, I watch the compacted soil dry and crack. Land restoration takes time and patience. Trees do not grow overnight.

I am using more hay this year than I ever have, not because the animals are eating it, but because I am wasting it. I am purposely over feeding animals to mulch an entire pasture.

It’s an exhausting process. Every day I put the hay in a different spot, and every day they don’t finish, leaving behind a layer of mulch. Trampled, fertilized hay that will protect and nourish the crops we plan to sow this year. Oats to dig their roots down and help break up the compacted soil. Legumes that will provide grazing, and more trees to provide shade and promote water retention.

New pastures

It will mean skipping that area when we rotate stock this summer, using more hay to supplement, and adding more fence to expand into areas we have been thinning and allowing undergrowth to come up.

This is a process where the livestock guardian dogs have proven to be invaluable. There are portions of the property that have not been utilized in over a hundred years. They belong to the wildlife.

The first step is adding fence and thinning dead and stunted trees to allow more sunlight to penetrate the canopy. For the following season, we put out an adult trio of dogs to claim territory and push back local wildlife, along with a starter flock of mixed chickens and guinea fowl to start on pest control.

I made a mistake the first year doing this and waited to put the poultry out until the dogs had spent some time in there. It was a sobering lesson in just how much good the poultry do for an area. I dealt with two cases of Lyme disease that year, something I had not had in the past.

It was a lesson learned. The fear of losing poultry in the beginning stages of claiming an area were unfounded. The dogs know their job.

Rotations

The poultry are followed by the young group of dairy cows. Finally, sheep are rotated into the area. Our property has places with very thin soil over ledge and each area is a lesson in patience as we wait for nature to adjust to the changes we’ve made before deciding on our next step.

Each spring, I watch to see how an area responds to winter’s rest before we decide to move stock around. Some areas drain better and are solid earlier in the season. This is something we have to watch very closely, because new growth can be severely damaged if stock go out on wet areas too early.

Mud season can appear to drag on for an interminably long time. Sometimes it’s hard to wait when we have all been stuck in winter holding areas, but again, lesson learned on jumping the gun and setting an area back a season or more for lack of a little patience.

Each step of the way, the dogs prove themselves as changes in stock rotations, new lambs and spring hatchings to expand flocks attract the attention of wildlife.

It has evolved into a very natural rhythm as adults move into new areas, and younger dogs move in behind to protect the stock who haven’t moved yet. It leaves the area around the house free to train the next set of youngsters, who are watched over by the retirees who have completed their cycle and are coming in out of the woods.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is the vision I have for our 30 acres. Really starting to integrate the patience aspect in a world that values instant everything. Our land is most woods. That was not the case 60 years ago where it was grazing pasture for cows. We are clearing slowly and growing our sheep and goats. I decided after trying to unroll bales of hay for the winter , that I would use square bales, spread out in flakes. The bare soil has been covered and grass is sprouting. This is a big picture, long term commitment. A lot to learn and a lot to enjoy!

  2. This strategy is so close to what we plan here! 72 acres of ups and downs, deep gullies and high ridges, with a few sloping areas that are as flat as we can get here. The soil does not exist.. it’s a combo of silt and gravel, with shallow rooted pines, most of which are unhealthy from lack of soil and abundance of pine beetles. Some oaks, hickory, and lots of scrubby junk. I hadn’t considered putting up the chickens (and ducks) first, but definitely plan to use them WITH the goats. Round bales placed in strategic locations, doing exactly what you are doing – slowing/encouraging waste to give the land a jumpstart on soil. The pines and scrub have overtaken everything, meaning that to do any fencing the jungle has to be hacked through first. Once livestock have had a go, we will follow with chainsaws and loppers to clear the dead/dying trees, leaving any healthy looking hardwoods, and maybe a few pines, along the way to create silvopasture. We may even plant a few trees for fast growing forage and shade. Hopefully, in a few years, there will actually be pasture for the future stock, and health of the land.

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