For weeks now, the temperatures have been summer-like and the entire landscape has been turning green. So although it may seem strange that we haven't been letting all the critters out to bask in the spring sun, until this week only the sheep were outside full time. This is how we overwintered our farm, and although the fields were starting to turn green, it wasn't quite time. While it may seem like a no-brainer to let the animals out as soon as there is something green out there to eat, if you do that you will run out of pasture quickly. While we love to let the horses, cows and goats roam free and relieve ourselves of the stall cleaning, pasture takes maintenance too.
Our farm is only 50 acres, including woodlands, house, barnyard, hog yard, hayfields, gardens and pastures. That doesn't leave all that much pasture for 4 horses, 4 cows, 15 sheep and a half dozen goats, plus the pastured poultry and pigs. So we need to manage our pasture according to how many animals we have if we want it to last the whole summer long and into the fall. The first step is by not turning everything out as soon as possible. We need to let the plants get a bit of a head start so they have enough energy to keep going. We will also close off parts of the pasture at different times during the growing year, allowing one part to be eaten down while the other part grows lush again. Another benefit is that we have a diverse herd. Goats love the brushy stuff-scrubby trees, multiflora rose and other browse the rest of the animals won't touch. The horses select the plants they like, such as clover or alfalfa first, as do the cows. Sheep eat all the soft grasses down nearly to the roots. Each has its own preferred food, and when you graze all of them together, it grazes the field down in a nearly even manner. If you had only one species grazing a spot at a time, it is easy for them to eat their favorite plants up until they were no longer present in the field. Like any of nature's environments, the pasture thrives on balance.
So how do we know it is time? For starters, when we let the horses and cows out in the evenings, they refuse to come back in! The lawn needs mowed already, and in some ways, the pasture is the same; the more you cut it, the more it grows back. So we let the goats out to play last night too. We've gotten away from the goat breeding business, but have 4 favorite adults and twin kids here still.
What happens if we're wrong? Maybe it is too early, but we'll monitor the pasture growth by walking through the fields. If the grasses are being eaten down too much, we can always restrict the fields that the animals are allowed into, or put then back in the barn for a week or two. It's a fairly forgiving system as long as you keep a close eye on what's going on. The other side of the coin is that if you don't let the animals out until the grass is tall and lush, they go and gorge like a kid with a basket full of Easter candy. While the child will likely suffer no more than a bellyache, for our livestock, the bellyache can result in digestive upsets (colic in horses, bloat on the others) which can actually kill the animal if not treated properly. So the wise farmer strives for a balance between letting the grass get a good start, but not so much that the animals are knee deep in food they haven't seen in months.
It's a busy weekend here, as the first weekend of trout fishing weekend means lots of our seasonal residents are here. If you're one of them, feel free to slow down when you pass the farm. There's lots to see in the fields these days!