Successful targeted grazing requires us to match our animals' needs and preferences with the growth stage of the plants we're targeting. We also have to match our management objectives with those of our clients. We might need the ewes to be on higher quality forage at a time when a client doesn't have good feed. We also need to account for the weather - this year, in particular, has been challenging. With the abnormal late rains, we have had a hard time predicting forage growth.
|The sheep ate the leaves from this live oak sprout - an indication|
that they didn't like the grass.
|They also ate the leaves and the bark from this manzanita.|
|This is the fenceline on the project we halted - we fed hay here, which resulted in herd effect (or trampling) - the sheep didn't actually eat much of the forage.|
|Barbed goat grass - I wouldn't want to eat it, either!|
|The ewes were excited to get to fresh (and more tasty) feed!|
|Today's new paddock at Sierra College - the sheep seem to love the wheat grass!|
We recently moved sheep from a contract in Nevada County after deciding that our goals didn't fit well with the state of the vegetation and the goals of the landowner. When I looked at this project over the winter, the site was dominated by annual ryegrass (which is typically decent forage even when it's dry). The landowner wanted to clear the vegetation in anticipation of establishing a home orchard. With the late rains, we were delayed in getting sheep to the project because of the tremendous forage growth. We finally moved 100 sheep onto the project last Thursday and Friday.
When I arrived, the site was dominated by invasive medusahead and barbed goat grass - it was probably the worst infestation of goat grass I've seen. The late rains favored these incredibly invasive species. Unlike annual ryegrass, these weeds have little if any nutritional value at this stage. When they dry out, they form a prickly thatch that is not very palatable to livestock. We can use herd effect - trampling - to impact these plants, but this requires feeding hay to meet the animals' nutritional needs.
I could tell when I arrived on day 2 that the sheep weren't happy. There was plenty of vegetation left in their paddock, but they ran to the fence and called to me to give them something to eat. At that point, they'd consumed every oak leaf and manzanita leaf they could reach. I was afraid that they'd break out of my electric fence in search of more palatable forage. After consulting with the landowner and with our farm advisor, we decided to pull the plug on the project.
By contrast, we also moved sheep onto the Grass Valley campus of Sierra College late last week. This site was dominated by perennial wheat grass, yellow starthistle, deciduous ceanothus, blackberries and manzanita. The sheep, so far, love the feed - they are consuming an amazing amount of it!
The lesson, at least for me, is that we need to pay attention to forage conditions, animal preferences, landowner goals, weather conditions, etc. - there are lots of moving parts in this system. Targeted grazing can be a "softer" and more affordable approach to vegetation management. At some point, however, the animals' well-being must take precedence - I'm in the targeted grazing business because I'm in the sheep business - not the other way around.