Until yesterday, our cows and sheep have been living their lives in a feed lot-style paddock, eating bales of hay that we had cut when we first arrived on the farm. I’m grateful to have these paddocks available because we wouldn’t have been able to buy livestock without them, but I was also extremely cognizant of the fact that they weren’t living the way I wanted them to. The ground got very mucky around the bale feeders (especially when the snow thawed), the animals were dirty, and the ground was treacherous walking with all the pock marks made by the cows’ hooves. Overall the situation was ok, but not great.
That has all changed now that I’ve recently finished my permanent fencing project for our south fields, a 17 acre portion of our property that is divided roughly in half by a hedge row. I’ve been concentrating on getting this side of the farm completed because there was still grass growing there this fall, unlike where we planted new seed or keep the land in CREP. The south fields used to be old hay fields and the previous owner had run a small number of cattle on them, but when we moved in there was still plenty of forage growing that matured and went dormant with the onset of cold weather… in the grazing business, this is called “stockpiled forage”. Think “standing” or “unharvested” hay, and you’ll be right on with the concept.
Of the 17 acres, I chose 10 acres to outline with a permanent fence for grazing purposes. On that 10 acres, I will graze both of my ruminant herds (I have separated the cows/ewes and the steers/lambs into different groups). Plans for the remaining 7 acres include range for our broiler chickens and turkeys, grazing for our pastured pigs (in combination with sections of woodland), and maybe a pond, depending on how our neighbor uses his farmland that drains onto ours. I divided the 10 acres into 3 sections to allow more flexibility, using high tensile electric fence and PasturePro line posts.
PasturePro makes a non-conductive, flexible, rot-proof post out of polypropylene and wood, and the high tensile wire attaches through the post with an oversized cotter pin. The end result is a good looking fence that cannot short out and will bear the stress of deer jumping, trees falling, etc without breaking. I went with 5 strands of wire, spaced (from the ground) 8″, 8″, 8″, 10″, 10″. This spacing will work for both cows and sheep, and will help keep coyotes and other predators out. Wires 2 and 4 are hot, and 1, 3, and 5 are connected back to the grounding rods. With this configuration, if an animal touches a hot wire they get zapped, and if the ground is frozen (which inhibits the flow of electricity) then they get shocked if they touch a hot and ground wire at the same time.
I further subdivided each section using temporary electric twine and step-in posts purchased from Premier1, since I only needed to give each herd 1/24th of an acre per day. By forcing them to eat a new “slice” every day, I ensure a more even graze and manure spread. How did I come up with 1/24th of an acre, you ask? Simple, you just calculate the daily dry matter (DM) requirement of your herd by using the known values of 5 pounds DM/sheep and 25 pounds DM/cow. I couldn’t find a DM requirement for donkeys, so I counted them as another cow. So for my 5 steers, 5 sheep, and 1 donkey, I needed to provide them with 175 pounds of DM per day. Then you calculate your available forage by multiplying grass density by height, in my case I had 350 pounds of forage per acre-inch, and the grass was 12″ tall. Therefore, I multiplied 350 x 12 to find that I had 4200 pounds of DM per acre. Lastly, you just divide the available forage by your animal’s requirements to determine the amount of grazing days you have (4200/175 = 24 days). Aren’t you glad you asked?!
Fancy math aside, the end result is that both herds of ruminants are finally where they are supposed to be… on pasture. By my calculations, the grass up there should last 120 days (10 acres x 24 days per acre / 2 herds), so I shouldn’t have to feed them another bale of hay this winter. By the time the grass comes in this spring, I will have finished the fencing on the north side of the property, and will be able to start my rotations there once the new grass seed has a chance to fully establish itself. The animals are now clean, dry, and happy grazing, and I am thankful to have finished this section of fence to make that happen. Much like taxes, fencing never goes away for a rancher, but I can celebrate completing a portion of that monumental task which directly benefits my animals.