by Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm, Auburn, CA
In 2009, we added a contract grazing enterprise to our sheep and goat operation. Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. Rather than paying landowners for pasture, as we have been doing for the last 5 years, contract grazing generates income. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.
While this might sound like an easy way to make livestock pay for themselves, contract grazing does involve a significant amount of management expertise and plant knowledge. Moving a group of sheep and goats through a subdivision to an open space preserve without damaging landscaping or upsetting homeowners is not for the faint of heart. In addition, we’ve had to learn what our animals will eat and when they’ll eat it. Fortunately, we’ve found that it is possible to “train” sheep and goats to eat a wide variety of plants – even plants that the books say they won’t eat.
Targeted Grazing – Knowing Your Plants
According to the Targeted Grazing Handbook, “Targeted grazing is the application of a specific kind of livestock at a determined season, duration, and intensity to accomplish defined vegetation or landscape goals.” In our experience, this requires us to know our livestock and what they will eat. We also need to know something about the life cycles of the plants we’re trying to manage. For example, Himalayan blackberries, an invasive introduced perennial plant, go dormant in the winter. This means that the plants try to store carbohydrates in their roots in the fall. By removing their “solar panels” (e.g., leaves) during this critical time, we can stress the plant enough to limit its growth and to eventually kill it.
We also need to know something about the plants that aren’t the target of our management objectives. In some cases, we want to encourage the growth of desirable plants while impacting less desirable species. We also need to be aware of potentially poisonous plants. In areas adjacent to landscaped properties, for example, we’ve seen oleander, foxglove, and other poisonous plants. Finally, we need to be aware of plants that our clients want to protect. In our part of California, blue and valley oaks are species of concern. On several of our projects, we worked to protect these trees from grazing and browsing.
All of the contract grazing jobs we’ve obtained thus far have been on un-fenced properties, which means we need to come equipped with our own fencing. We’ve used two methods; electrified netting and portable 4-wire polywire fences. Each of these systems has a place in contract grazing. Electric netting is the most secure fencing system. This fencing comes in various heights from 36” to 48” and is generally available in 164-foot sections. We use fences manufactured by Premier 1 Supplies and by Kencove. The Premier fences seem to hold up longer in our conditions. We’ve also used 4-strand polywire fences and tread-in fence posts. The fence posts can be installed by pushing them in with my foot (in all but the hardest and rockiest ground). The wire comes on spools that can be rolled up easily. With either type of fencing, we can build a 2 acre pasture in about an hour.
Since we don’t have access to the electrical grid, we use battery powered fence energizers. Our preference is for the Stafix and Speedrite brands, both of which are made in New Zealand. These low impedance energizers put a pulse of electricity through the fence, which eliminates the possibility of heating up the fence wires. This is critical for dry season grazing projects in our region, where the threat of wildfire is ever present. We use solar panels to keep our 12v deep cycle batteries charge. The energizers are rated in joules. I’m not sure what a joule is, but I do know that a 2-joule energizer will power a paddock with 8 nets sufficiently to contain sheep and/or goats.
In our region, we have coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and domestic dogs – all of which present a threat to our livestock. While the electric fences provide some protection, we rely on livestock guardian dogs and llamas to completely protect our animals. In more than 6 years, we’ve lost fewer than 3 animals to predators thanks to our guardians.
Dogs seem to be the most reliable guardians in our system. We use both crossbred and purebred dogs, including a purebred Anatolian shepherd, a Pyrenees-Anatolian cross, and several Anatolian-Akbash crosses. On the plus side, these dogs seem to repel all predators, including mountain lions. On the negative side, our dogs are not always content to patrol within the boundaries of our paddocks. On large properties, this is not a problem; in neighborhoods, homeowners sometimes object to large, white dogs roaming freely. Furthermore, a guard dog’s first line of defense is its bark – again, not a problem on large properties but somewhat objectionable in a neighborhood.
We’ve recently acquired a guard llama to add to our division of livestock protection. From our research, llamas are great at protecting sheep and goats from dogs and coyotes. On the other hand, they are reported to hide in the midst of the flock when a mountain lion is nearby. Regardless, llamas are silent guardians, which may make them more appropriate in some settings.
Herding and Transportation
Sheep and goats can be trained to follow a handler or to move away from him (in other words, animals can be led or driven). We rely primarily on driving (it’s easier to be behind the animals when loading them in a trailer, for example). We use low-stress handling techniques and border collies to move our animals into and out of paddocks and into the trailer. Using these techniques, we can load animals directly from a paddock into our trailer.
For us, border collies are an indispensable part of our system. By instinct, border collies try to keep the livestock between themselves and their handler. This means that their default approach is to stop the animals and bring them back to us – a safe way to ensure that the livestock are contained. A well-trained border collie can gather livestock from a distance of a mile or more. We use our dogs to load our trailers, sort animals and help move stock from one paddock to the next. The joke at our house is that the border collies are our most reliable employees – they are happy to work, always show up, and never need to be bailed out on Saturday morning!