Notes from Windward: #64

The Land Management Department

      Most organizations which manage land spend a lot of money on keeping nature in check; the goal of the Land Management Department is to work with nature in order to maintain the vitality and productivity of our land both in the short run, and through the long haul.

      Every time I see some manicured lawn being trimmed by someone on a massive riding lawnmower, I can help but think that some where there are sheep going to bed hungry. And while that may sound like a joke, there's more than a little truth there. In Texas, for example, the economic value of controled grazing by sheep recently surpassed the value of meat sales. In California, herds of sheep are trucked from location to location to graze down the brush and reduce the potential fire hazard, all without the use of herbicides or the disruption of the topsoil.

      One of the bedrock principles of any sustainable system is "waste not, want not." Unmanaged land is a waste of sunshine and rain water, the core renewable resources that all other renewable systems are founded upon, and those who fail to effectively steward the land they're responsible for usually wind up, by virtue of financial necessity, surrendering it to others who are more likely than not to continue using the land in non-sustainable ways until there's nothing left.

      It's the goal of sustainable land management to turn this process around, to develop ways that land can be utilized sustainably in order to preserve both the land and the people who care for it.

      Sustainable land management is more akin to choreography than construction, but there is a good deal of construction involved in setting the stage for the "Circle Dance." Here's some examples of how we're approaching the challenge of sustainably managing we hold in trust.

      Rain and sunshine are the primary inputs needed in order to grow grass, but there's not a lot of point in doing that unless we can control grazing. Over an above the need to be able to control where our sheep graze, Windward is located in range country, so there's a lot of cattle out there who would be more than happy to hang out here and get fat on anything we tried to grow.

      Consequently, the first major challenge that has to be met involves fencing Windward's perimeter so that we can keep our sheep in and the range cattle out. Since Windward has more than two miles of boundry line to fence, fencing is going to be an ongoing task for a long time.

      Moreover, sustainability isn't about taking short-cuts, it's about doing things right the first time so that the materials and energy invested remain useful for the long-term. Fencing is a good example of the need to look for and utilize long-term solutions.

      Our goal is to create a fence that will last for more than twenty years, and during that time, be able to keep goats in and range cattle out. That's a tall order, and one that has to be filled at a price we can afford.

      The situation is further complexed by our terrain. While Windward does have some twenty acres of nice flat pasture, and some stretches of our boundry lines are fairly straight and level, at least half of the exterior fencing will involve land with a significant amount of slope, or which meanders along the county road.

      We're not willing to use barb wire because of the damage it can do to the udders of our sheep and goats. It's important to remember that in the eyes of a goat, most any fence is just a suggestion, not a real limitation. I've seen a determined doe clear a five foot barrier in a single bound when she was on one side and her crying baby was on the other.

      If a fence is made using barb wire, and a milking doe forces her way through it to get to her baby, then there's the real probability that her udder is going to get ripped up. So, while the design needs to be one which limits the ability of a lamb or kid to get through the fence, it also needs to be one which won't punish a mother for doing what a mother's got to do.

      Another common option is to use rolls of woven fencing, also called fabric fencing. This type of fence looks like a long net with six inch by six inch holes. It's fairly cheap, and goes up quickly enough, but it's utility as a way to contain goats and sheep is limited to just a few years. After that, the wear and tear on the wire, as it stretches in the summer heat and shrinks with winter's cold temperatures, is such that it droops in between the posts, and generally starts to break down.

      Before long, fabric fence turns into a mesh of baling wire a you work to knit up an ever greater number of places where the animals have pushed their heads through the loosened wire, and once they get their heads through, they'll try very hard to get the rest of themselves through, and a fence design which isn't "self-healing" requires a lot of maintenance. And any system that requires a lot of maintenance isn't very sustainable.

      After doing a lot of research, the fencing style we're using for our perimeter is modeled on a technique developed in southeastern Oregon more than a hundred years ago. In those days, folks made fence posts out of whatever wood was locally available, and in that case, the slow-growing local wood was so hard that the fencing staples just wouldn't go in.

      So, instead of using staples to afix the wire to the surface of the fence post, they used a red-hot rod to burn a hole through the fence post, and just threaded the wire through the hole. Fortunately, the posts we're using aren't that hard, and we'll be able to use a heavy-duty electrical drill to make the holes, but the principle is the same.

      Instead of the soft steel wire that's fabric fence is woven from, we'll use the high-tensile strength wire developed in New Zealand. Because of its strength, it will resist stretching during the winter as the metal naturally contracts as the temperature drops. What usually happens with fabric fencing is that the staple which holds the fencing to the post creates a dimple, or nick, on the surface of the wire. When the wire contracts on some cold wintry night, and becomes tense, the nick acts as a weak spot, and the wire snaps.

       Using this through-hole design, the HTS wire is able equalize itself over its 330' run. [Why 330' feet?] That protects the wire since it's much easier to snap a short piece of wire than a long one.

      In addition, each run of the wire is fitted with a heavy spring at one end, and a tightening ratchet at the other. The spring acts as a stress "safety valve" which makes it all that much harder for a range cow to force its way through the fence since the wire will give as the cow presses against it, and then spring back into place undamaged. A taunt fence looks better, more secure, which in this case is more than just a cosmetic benefit since an animal that wants to get through a fence will be looking for any potential weak spot that can be taken advantage of. A taunt fence isn't as likely to be tested as a droopy fence would be.

      The turn-buckle at the other end enable us to easily "tune" the fence to the desired tension. The primary use of the fence is to control animal movement during the spring and summer, and during those times you want a tight, secure fence. Come the fall, animals aren't very likely to try to force their way through a fence when there's nothing interesting to eat on the otherside.

      Since it's the contraction caused by the cold of winter that does the real damage to the integrity of the fence wire, by incorporating ratchets into the design, we're able to back off the tension at the end of the season, and then tighten the fence back up in the spring.

      We're pretty jazzed up about fencing right now because the county has decided to improve the county road that forms our eastern boundary. As part of that work, the county is clearing away everything that lies within twenty-five feet of the centerline.

      We have about three-eighths of a mile of frontage, and much of that was choked with oak copes which would have make it very difficult to construct an effective fence along there, but now that they're cutting down the oaks, and using a massive track hoe to pull out the stumps because if they don't, the oaks will just grow right back.

      The result is that we'll be left with a clear right-of-way on which to install our eastern perimeter fence line. Since that was the primary impediment to getting our main pasture fenced and productive, we're very excited about the work the county's doing.

      There's an old New England saying that "Good fences make good neighbors," and while there's certainly merit to that, we're more focused on the concept that good fences make for sustainable production.

      Sustainable husbandry is founded on the concept of humans working with nature in ways that insure that natural systems go forward without undue waste. For example, of the thousands of acorns produced by a mature oak tree, perhaps one or two will actually take root and become a new oak tree - and while this is the natural way, it's also very wasteful.

      But by planting a dozen acorns in our garden, we can start up a half dozen oaks, and at the right time, transplant them to where they'll prosper and where they'll improve Windward's biosphere. In this way, the need of the oak to propagate itself is fulfilled, and we get to use the rest of its acorn production for other purposes.

      Grazing animals lack the ability to manage the land they're grazing on; it's up to us to use our understanding and temporal vision to manage our land in ways which enhance the productivity of the land, insure its diversity and provide sustenance for our animals and ourselves. And fencing is the tool most central to our efforts to accomplish these goals.

      And water management runs a close second. Like many places, in the winter it's too wet here, and in the summer, it's too dry. The spring growing season is bountiful while it lasts, but it doesn't last anywhere near as long as we'd like. However, by constructing catchments and creating ways to move water from one area to another, we can realize a substantial increase in our land's carrying capacity without draining our aquafer or seeing our topsoil wash away.

      Through the use of sustainable land management practices, we can easily double the natural productivity of our land, and through sustainable animal husbandry, we can easily halve the load that our animals would otherwise place on that land. And that's the sort of math which makes a sustainable lifestyle possible.


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Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64