Notes from Windward: #66


Fencing the Loafing Pasture

a major step forward in our animal management options

     Sustainability is about creating value in ways that are in harmony with nature, and one way we work to do that is through expanding our ability to control the ways our animals graze our land. By limiting their access, we can insure that they make good use of forage without over-stressing the land.

a view of the ratchets that tighten the fence wire

     Sustainable systems have to be labor-efficient, since the more labor it takes to accomplish a goal on an ongoing basis, the less sustainable the practice is. One way we put that axiom into practice is by wintering our sheep in the main garden area, and them moving them to another area when it's time to plant. That way, their manure goes directly into the garden, and any bedding and uneaten feed are easily put through the shredder for use as mulch without having to haul it to some other location for processing, and then back again for use mulching plants.

     The rule is that the easier it is to get something done, the more likely it is to get done.

     A loafing pen is a place where the sheep can hang out in the shade while their rumen undertakes the process of breaking down the cellulosic component of what they've grazed.

     To them, the process of eating is more akin to the way we go to the grocery store to acquire the raw ingredients need to make a meal. In the case of the sheep, when they're eating, they're loading their rumen with materials that will be broken down by the bacteria living in their rumen, after which they absorb the released nutrients as food.

     There are many fencing systems used today, but all have notable drawbacks if you're wanting a fencing system to last and perform over the years. One problem is that the annual fluctuations in moisture causes wooden fence posts to swell and shrink, a process which causes the staples that hold the fencing to the post to become lose. Driving the staple in too much creates a dent in the wire which then functions as a focal point for stress, and that creates a weak spot where the wire's likely to break when it's under load.

Virgil leads some sheep into the catch pen prior to shearing

     Another problem involves the way annual temperature cycles stretch the wire. If you install a tight fence in summer when the metal is warm and has been expanded by the heat, the next winter's cold will see a contraction of the wire to the point where it will be stretched, often to the breaking point. That leaves you with the choice of a loose fence that's not as effective as a taunt one, or a tight fence that needs to be mended a lot.

     The way we've gotten around that is to eliminate the staples by drilling holes through the poles, and relying on a ratchet system that enables us to tighten each strand of fence to the appropriate tension needed to keep the lambs and sheep in the pasture. And then when fall comes and it's time to move the sheep back into the garden, we can back the ratchets off, let the fence go slack thereby insuring that the wire will not be stressed by the cold. Come spring, when we want to move sheep back into the loafing pen, all we'll have to do is ratchet the lines taunt again, and we'll be ready to go;

Jannel and Jacki use a template to drill the through-pole holes for the high tensil strength wire

     The new loafing pen also incorporates some features which will make it easier to work the sheep. For example, the loafing pen is actually divided up into three sections, and the connection between the northern and middle sections involves a chute sixteen feet long by eight feet wide. By tossing a flake of tasty alfalfa into the catch pen, it's easy enough to induce the sheep to gather there. Once the gates are closed, it's a small enough area that it's quite easy to grab any particular sheep without having to chase them around the two acre pen.

     The trick with working with sheep is that you have to be smarter than they are, and planning ahead and building in catchments like this is one way that we evidence that :-)


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 66