The Grass is Back

Springtime barely had a moment this year, as the seasons seemed to rocket from winter to summer. All the insects seem to have hatched at once (ach!, get the bug net!), and all the wild birds are busy foraging nesting materials. Nature has no time to waste this year, as she charges into the growing season.

The return of the green grass and dandelions is a welcome sight on the farm. Just in the past few days, I’ve seen the first of the bumble bee queens buzzing for pollen, barely able to be airborne like an overloaded helicopter. They more or less crash into flowers, gathering what they need to start their new colony for the year. Shiny blue orchard bees hurry about, seeking little nooks to create their mud chambers to lay their eggs.

For years, we’ve made a habit not to mow the first dandelions as much as possible, leaving them for the essential pollinators. They pop up first on south-facing slopes, though this year with the delayed start, it seems that all of them are springing up all at once.

The farm animals are equally eager to see the greening process finally manifesting. The laying hens moved out into their summer mobile housing out in the pasture, and the sheep have been let out to graze in the yard. Because sheep are ruminants and have multiple stomachs that make it possible for them to digest high fibrous foods like grass, changes in their diet must be taken slowly. All winter they’ve enjoyed the hay we stored away, which is dried grass, and too much of the new, lush grass can be a setup for bloat (which can kill your sheep if unnoticed). That means the transition from hay to pasture in the spring, when the grass is most lush, needs to come as baby steps.

We start by fencing off portions of the yard, where the grass springs back quickest, allowing them only a few hours at first. The sheep are ecstatic at the prospect of having fresh salad to eat, lining up at the gate and charging out to rip, rip, rip with their bottom teeth and hard palate. They could easily gorge themselves during their kid-in-the-candy-shop feasting, so soon we have to herd them back into their stronghold pen, so they don’t overdo it.

Each day, they can spend a little more time in the yard grazing, until they will have the option to come in and out of the stronghold and into the grazing paddock at will throughout the day. Periodically, they take breaks to sit in a shady spot, chewing away at their cud, with their full bellies—signs of a happy ruminant.

This is how sheep (and cows and goats) were designed to live—foraging out to fill their stomach, then coming back to rest in a safe place to chew and digest. The exercise of going out to the grazing space and coming back to the safe space is also important for their health. Now that the grass has returned and the weather warmed, the sheep can go and harvest their own food, rather than needing us to bring them pre-harvested foods as is necessary in the winter months. They are more than happy to do it!

Having smaller paddocks for them to graze that move often is essential for protecting the pasture spaces from being overgrazed. Overgrazing can not only damage but kill off plants in the pasture, leaving only the most pernicious weeds that the sheep refuse to eat. Without giving grazed portions of the pasture a chance to rest, those weeds would take over and after a time, there would be no good grazing plants left.

Sheep, like many animals, can also have a lazy streak, and they’d much rather keep grazing the grass that is nearest to home, rather than go further and further afield. We use our portable electric fencing to create lanes that then open up to their newest grazing paddock, reducing the overgrazing situation between the barn and their breakfast. This takes more effort to manage, but the healthy balance it creates between the animals and the land is essential to a sustainable and regenerative process.

We also follow up behind the sheep with the poultry, whose nitrogen-rich manure works to re-invigorate the soil fertility. The foraging birds are also happy to chomp down on bugs and grubs living in the pasture, scratching up the sheep manure and breaking the life cycles of parasites. Together, the poultry and the sheep create a win-win cycle of renewal for the pasture ecosystem.

That ecosystem is home to many more species than just sheep and chickens. The skies are filled with swallows and dragonflies, the field is home to Sandhill cranes, deer, ground squirrels, grouse, butterflies, and bees, the untilled soil teems with worms and beneficial creatures down to the tiniest scale. It is home to wild and domestic life, with good fences and guard animals to keep the balance of predator and prey a cordoned off safe space. About the farm, there are plenty of woods for the predators to enjoy their lifestyles freely. In the pasture, we save the grass for the animals that need it for food.

Properly managed pastures sequester more carbon than the same acreage of trees, build soils, and encourage biodiversity. Here’s to the return of the grass this year! See you down on the farm sometime.