Thursday, April 21, 2011

Contract Grazing - Not for the Faint Hearted

Twice in the last week (on Saturday in Rocklin, and today in Lincoln), we've had sheep out of the fence on our contract grazing jobs.  We know for sure that the sheep in Rocklin were chased through the fence by some kids.  I suspect that the sheep in Lincoln may have had human encouragement (if not outright assistance) in their great escape this morning.  My assistant manager, Paul, saw the sheep inside the fence at 5:45 this morning - by 6:45 they were out.

Steep terrain and proximity to roads can make pasture set-up difficult!
The risk of having sheep out in an urban area is just one of the challenges in contract grazing.  Other issues include the potential for poisonous plants (either growing naturally or fed as yard clippings), predator attacks, and neighbor complaints.  In my experience, 99.9% of the neighbors love seeing the sheep.  There are always a few folks, however, who don't like the noise, the smell, or the fact that someone is being paid to graze their animals.

Obviously, there's a great deal more to contract grazing than simply turning the sheep or goats out.  With fuel approaching $4.50/gallon, there's obviously the cost of hauling animals in and out of projects.  The lands that lend themselves to grazing are generally steep, rocky, overgrown - or all three - which makes building fence and moving livestock more challenging.

Grazing animals have three distinct impacts on plants.  First, they consume them.  Second, they trample on them.  Third, they help cycle nutrients by excreting on them.  Depending our our clients' goals, we try to impact every plant in a particular paddock in at least one manner.  As some plants reach maturity, they become unpalatable to the animals - which means we try to trample the plants as much as possible.  Trampling requires us to manage the density of our animals carefully.
Taff examining "herd effect" - the sheep trampled this vegetation.

By increasing stock density, we can increase the "herd effect."

Finally, there is a hidden cost to contract grazing.  When we found the sheep Saturday night in Rocklin, they were obviously very frightened by the ordeal of being chased through an electric fence.  They remained quite skittish for the next several days, and they probably consumed less vegetation.  Not only does this slow our progress on the contract, it impacts animal health and well-being.

Contract grazing can be an incredible useful tool for land managers, and a useful business enterprise for livestock producers.  It does, however, take a certain level of management expertise - not every producer is cut out for contract grazing.

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