North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Grass Farmer

You may boast of your amber waves of grain, but today’s progressive livestock owner is really a grass farmer.  And, of course, we’re talking much more than lawns!

There’s the old-school playpen method to pasturing, where animals are given a large area to roam at will, returning to the same space day after day.  What happens with this method is that the animals pick through the spacious pasture, eating all the “candy” and leaving the “spinach.”  Eventually, the candy is overgrazed, the spinach all goes to seed, and the pasture is overtaken by the spinach, leaving it unpalatable for the livestock.  Clumps of grass grow tall where manure piles, which they won’t eat either because of the smell, and invasives like spotted knapweed and burdock move in.  After a while, that lovely playpen is a real mess!  (And the farmer ends up having to feed hay all year because there’s no forage nutrition in the pasture).

Ruminants like sheep and cows and goats are meant to eat grasses as their main dietary source—that’s why they have that complex four-stomach system.  Even other livestock like horses and poultry and pigs benefit greatly from the nutrition in fresh green forage.  So, what are some ways we can defeat the playpen syndrome and build strong, viable pastures?

First, we have to overcome the spinach/candy problem.  This doesn’t mean eradicating the spinach (though you have to pull out those invasives) because we all know that spinach is packed with important nutrition, even if it isn’t everyone’s favorite.  In essence, the livestock need a balanced nutrition that includes eating the candy AND the spinach.  This can be accomplished through mob grazing, which mimics the tendencies of wild herds of bison or elk.  The group sticks together on a relatively small space per animal (which offers safety from predators), eats down everything in that section, spreads their manure, and then moves onto the next plot.

All the forages have been trimmed evenly, hoof activity stimulates the root system, and the free fertilizer spikes the nitrogen.  The animals are moved the next day to a new section of the pasture, and the cycle begins again.  Topsoil is regenerated and the balance of forages is maintained.  On our farm, the sheep are excited every morning to head out to a new paddock, formed of flexible Electronet fencing that can be pulled out and rearranged into new shapes by hand.  In the spring, paddocks are small given the intense lushness of the forage, whereas by autumn, each pen is larger as the forages thin and overgrazing before winter must be avoided.

Belle, the guard donkey, follows in paddocks immediately left by the sheep, clipping any stalky bits left behind.  If given lush pasture, she could founder or become obese, so the scarcity is good for her overall health and keeps her near the flock she is protecting from predators.

The poultry pull up the rear, devouring bugs, scratching up the manure, and enjoying clovers and grasses with surprising voracity.  They too spread their nitrogen-rich manure, leaving dense, green patches after a few rains marking where they had grazed in their chicken tractors.  For stubbornly unproductive patches in the pasture, we’ve even used the pigs to build new topsoil, disking and replanting after their tenure.

Really, the best thing for the farm is the animals, and the best thing for the animals is the grass.  Together, they’ve strengthened the pastures and our ability to graze more sheep on the same acreage.  But we’re certainly still learning.

Last week, Woody Lane, who is a nutritionalist and grazing specialist from the state of Oregon, joined us with a number of UW Extension agents and other livestock producers for a pasture walk on our farm.  The group looked at the different species growing in the field and sword (leaf) density.  They pulled out chucks of sod to look at the nitrogen-fixing nodules on clover roots.  The value of grazing multiple species and the start of our silvopasture project were also key points of interest.

Our next hurtle on the farm will be balancing the pH and potassium levels, both of which are low and cannot be regained just through grazing technique.  Woody Lane was able to give us some helpful pointers with regards on what to spread, when, and how it will help improve the pastures.  This is especially true of our southern hayfield, which is in dire need of revitalization attention and is next on the pasture project list (along with continuing the development of the silvopasture).

But having pasture walks with nationally known guest speakers like Woody Lane or Joel Salatin also helps affirm that we are on the right path with intensive, rotational grazing of multiple species.  It is certainly more labor intensive that freestall barn loafing and feeding pre-processed TMR (Total Mixed Ration) that is meant to “bypass the rumen”—what?  Let them go and pick their own food today.  It’s much healthier, and they want to do it! 

If you were a sheep or cow, would you rather have pulverized fermented grain, brewer’s waste, and chicken manure?  Or would you rather be out in the sunny pasture munching on mixed salad?  Well, it wouldn’t take me long to decide that I’d rather live with a grass farmer.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453



Every year, we have a similar struggle in the pasture for the sheep.  In the early part of the season, there’s too much grass, growing tall and lush at exponential speeds.  You can’t move the sheep through fast enough.  Then things peak off in July and by August, the land grows brown and dryer, the grass stops growing, and the sheep are miserable with the bright sun and heat.

They lay in little huddles, panting, wishing for a light rain to ease the late summer dry zone and green up their paddock.  But if we let them back in from pasture, they just loaf about in the barn instead of meeting enough hours of grazing time.  Even the milk production goes down during these hot, dry stretches.

In the age after the Cutover, the Fullingtons like so many other homesteaders in the area, labored for what must have felt like ages to tear those massive white pine stumps from the land in order to grow crops and gardens, build homes, and raise livestock.  When Grandpa bought the farm from the Fullingtons back in ’68, Lloyd made Grandpa promise that he’d never plant trees in the fields—another common story that became the fate of most farms in our neck of the woods.  After all those years of pushing back the forest, those fields and pastures were now thick groves of red pine plantations.

There were some scruffy, shrubby areas behind the barn and on the edges of the fields (former cattle grazing areas), which Grandma and Grandpa did plant in red pine, and they have since been thinned and tended as necessary.  Now they were thick and strong and in need of another round of thinning in order to give the remaining trees enough space and light to thrive.  But still, these trees are around the edges of the pasture, not out where they can help the sheep beat the late summer heat.

We’ve thought of building shelters on skids and pulling them along for the sheep.  We’ve looked at collapsible shade systems on wheels.  We’ve even thought about putting up solar panels in the pasture and letting the sheep graze beneath them (though, this one isn’t off the radar, we just need to work on the capital part).

But then Kara was invited to attend a workshop being coordinated by our UW Extension livestock agent Otto Wiegand on sylvopasture methods.  Coming from the ancient word sylvan (forest), the idea is to create an open-grove area (much like an oak savanna) where mature trees with wide spacing offer enough shade and wind protection to provide comfort for the livestock but still allow enough sunlight through to grow a crop of grass on the floor below. 

The full-sun pasture grasses would grow first and be consumed during the early part of the summer, while the sylvopasture grasses would grow slower and still be a viable and nutritious food source when it was time to move the livestock through during the hot season.  The system has been especially popular in areas like the Carolinas, though it is still a fairly new concept of pasture management for the Midwest.

Just about any type of tree can be suitable for sylvopasture, with common choices being nut trees, oaks or maples.  But sometimes even pines are used as well.

“I’ll want to caution you,” advised Jeff Groeschl, our forester during a meeting on the project.  “Red pines can’t take much soil compaction.  There’s this one guy down the road I’m watching who lets his cattle into his pine plantation, and 60% of the trees are now dead.  But then, he has it too heavily stocked, and you guys are raising sheep, so that’s a big bonus for you.”

Typically, when managing a pine plantation, thinning strives for an 80% shade cover.  With sylvopasture and the need for light to grow the grass, the desire is to create a 50% shade canopy.

“This is a new thing for me,” Jeff remarked as he poured over the resources Kara had collected from the conference and the internet.  “But it’s exciting.  You guys have a good vision with this and thinking towards how you want to use your land.  We can do this.”

Otto and Randy (a pasture extension agent) also joined us, Jeff, and members from the small-scale logging team as we crashed through the pine plantations, looking at trees and surveying the best management and thinning options.  Out on the far side of the field, undergrowth was sparse, but behind the barn were all these young maple trees like a thicket, which would have made it impossible for the sheep to penetrate.

As the loggers set to work taking out the trees marked in red and leaving the ones marked in blue, Jeff was scratching his head as to how we were going to create a good seed bed for the pasture part of the project.  First, the loggers were careful to take all of the branch debris to a separate “staging” area, so that it wouldn’t litter the pasture floor.

“And then,” Jeff mused.  “What we need is a grinder, like what they use under the power lines, to take out those little maples and work on the stumps.”

But where to find one.  He called all his timbering buddies, but no luck.  Then, one day after driving home from our farm, there came one running right down the road!  A company with a grinding rig just happened to be working a job in the area and could squeeze our little project in.  What a happy coincidence!

While neither crew was on the farm for very long, it was a bit of a shock for some of our clients to see logging trucks running up and down Fullington Road.  But as we explained that this was part of thinning the pine plantations to make shaded pasture for the sheep, eco-fears were abated.  Of course, the pasture’s won’t instantly be ready and it may be a five-year process to get them fully established, preparing the trees and removing the understory has been a huge step forward.

When working out in the hot sun in the garden yesterday, I was feeling ready for my own version of sylvopasture!  Sylvogardenening?  It wouldn’t surprise me if that exists as well.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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