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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

A Year of Contract Grazing

A Year of Contract Grazing

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.

Fencing

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.

Predator Control

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!

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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from issue:

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Bamboo A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

Bamboo: A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

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from issue:

The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

by:
from issue:

The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

by: ,
from issue:

If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Cultivating Questions: Alternative Tillage & Inter-Seeding Techniques

Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

Soil, Vegetation, and Acidity

From Dusty Shelves: Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide teaches us about soil acidity.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT