Any sheep, goat, or cattle operation needs to provide feed for their animals through the cold winter months when the grass is growing slowly or isn’t growing at all. That’s where having a big, dry barn comes in. Traditionally this problem is overcome by cutting grass in the spring and summer months, drying it, and putting the now “hay” in the barn to store it until winter. This is often referred to as “putting up hay”, most likely because the hay is kept on the second story of the barn.
Modern hay farms use two essential resources to grow hay in our area; water and petroleum. Pastures are heavily irrigated to maximize numerous cuttings, similar to alfalfa in production. The grass is mowed using heavy equipment (typically tractors) and baled to bring in the harvest. A very efficient system.
Since hay can be expensive, we try to buy as little as possible. We figure the less reliance on off-farm inputs, the better. This may be a drop in the bucket, but the less demand we have for hay the less demand is placed upon the resources named above. But most importantly, ruminants by their very nature are grass-harvesting machines and will do the job without using any of those valuable and costly resources.
By dividing our pasture into smaller paddocks and planning the amount of grass the sheep self-harvest, we have shifted our attention away from micro-management of our livestock to the holistic management of our pastures. This method contributes to healthier animals and grasslands because our sheep spend little time in any one place. Through better land management this season, we didn’t have to feed hay until the 1st of December.
Time spent with family can be one of the most enjoyable things we do. The dynamic relationships between siblings, parents, and grandparents are essential, bonding us together.
Over time I have come to realize that these relationships are equally as impactful on the lives of our livestock. Bonds between livestock aren’t always the most apparent and can easily be overlooked.
Current agricultural practices compartmentalize livestock, sacrificing these bonds for the sake of production. Typically, males are kept in small paddocks alone or with other males with little to no contact with the rest of the herd until breeding time. Females are then left to live in groups to raise the young until the juveniles are artificially weened, as young as two weeks of age. The juveniles are kept in groups of like-age after being castrated, dehorned, and in the case of sheep having their tails docked. This method of separating livestock is used whether it’s sheep, goats, cows, chickens or pigs. These production systems are based on the assumption that we know best how to care for each individual group of animals at any given age. But this attitude doesn’t account for the desire and ability of the animals to care for themselves.
On our farm, we have found that if provided the opportunity our sheep will fill their roles in the herd. Ewes happily manage all of the lambs’ needs, including naturally weening them, teaching the lambs what is good to eat and what is not, and what the lamb’s overall place is in the hierarchy of the herd. Learning herd manners is deepened though interactions with our ram because as the boss he keeps the male lambs in check (they can get really rowdy). The ram also provides protection from predators for the whole herd and teaches the next generation what to watch out for. These are bonds and dynamic relationships that we just can’t teach.
By keeping all of our animals together all the time we hope to strengthen the herd through family values.
As you can see from reading through our earlier posts, most of our attention is focused on the chicken. But equally important is our small, cloven-hoofed, sunlight-harvesters raised in conjunction with our poultry; also know as sheep.
The breed we raise is called Katahdin. They function as the grass mowers, water conservationists, worm habitat enhancers, and mineral recyclers, as well as being just all around fun in our fields. Focusing our management on our grassland eco system instead of on the sheep helps us to achieve these things. We mob them up (keep them in closer together with electric nets) and keep them moving (restrict the amount of time they have access to a given paddock).
Referred to as a hair sheep, Katahdin shed their wool coats naturally every summer and are a nice fit for our Mediterranean-like climate.
Because this type of sheep sheds it wool, they have less lanolin wax (a water-proofing substance that wooly sheep create to protect themselves in wetter climates). Less lanolin makes for mild, delicious meat.
Check out this TED talk (if you have already seen this I commend you). This is the system/philosophy that we apply to our farm. Considering that the Rogue Valley is short on rain every year in the summer season, it’s extremely important to manage our grasslands appropriately.
I had hoped that the transition from a hobby farm to a commercial venture would go smoothly. But, unfortunately for us, we failed to protect our farm’s name and another farm snatched it up. But after some deliberation we have settled on a new name: Pradaria Farm.
As long as I can remember I have wanted to farm. It began when I was only a couple of feet tall, watching my cousins chase and catch chickens on my uncle’s farm in Utah. On this ranch the horses where huge and wild, my cousins rough and ready for anything, and the cattle were placid and content to munch grasses. The experience was profound, even though at that age I couldn’t have expressed it in words. I knew I needed it.
Grassland in Portuguese (Pradaria) encompasses all that our farm is- simply livestock, pasture, clean air, and water. This simple approach to farming is the root that drives our growth and dedication to producing only clean food. Our mission statement is: “Premium food that’s grown with integrity, placing quality of life and taste to the forefront of production.” This is the way food was raised in the State of Jefferson by the early farmers who settled this area. This food heritage and our own emigrant heritage, Portuguese farmers who settled in this area intertwine to create something new that I hope my family would be proud of- Pradaria Farm Clean Food.
When I first gained access to the couple of acres of pasture that I currently farm, my eyes would casually skim over the poly-culture of plants and grass-life, unable to differentiate one from another due to the vastness of the fields. I only gained insight into the nuances of the pasture once I started to rotationally graze my livestock. When using this method a farmer becomes intimately familiar with the many paddocks that are formed through the process, creating a magnifying lens focused on the different plant families. Rotating back to a paddock that the animals haven’t had access to in a month or two feels similar to visiting an old friend. Then things you haven’t noticed before start to take center stage.
Onto this stage stepped Purple Vetch (better known as Crown Vetch), a legume that’s used in agriculture nationwide as a cover crop because it fixes nitrogen in the soil. But the USDA recognizes it as an invasive species, growing unchecked throughout Oregon (it is what creates the large purple patches on the hills in the Rogue Valley during the spring and early summer). At the time I was excited to find it in abundance, happily fixing nitrogen on my land and providing quality forage for my livestock. I didn’t know that this plant was invasive until a friend brought it to my attention.
But over the next couple of years there seemed to be less and less of the vetch in every rotation. This plant that had grown throughout the region had started to disappear to my and my sheep’s dismay (the sheep loved to eat it). Pressure from the sheep’s grazing and chickens following behind cleaning up the seeds seemed to have created an environment that was in uninhabitable to vetch.Instead of changing the paddock system around to save what was left, I decided to allow events to play out. As I move in to my fourth season, there is no vetch anywhere on my pasture land. It only grows where the sheep cannot reach, on the neighbor’s side of the fence line. I have effectively (and unintentionally) eradicated purple vetch.