When I began my farm I did not want animals as a part of it. In my younger days my parents raised a few animals here: a milk cow, milk goats, a beef cow, some pigs, rabbits, and a big flock of chickens. Actually, my younger brother and I did most of the work from feeding to clean up to butchering the smaller livestock. So looking back on that and because now I do not eat meat I figured why bother?
I have about four and half acres of grassland that I mowed every year for garden mulch. Starting in July I would mow about ten wide 100 foot long rows with a DR Mower, let it dry and rake it up by hand. I would do this until it was all cut and raked into piles. The soil is so poor that with each year it was yielding less and less even when I left some parts fallow. Aster, yarrow, daisy, and goldenrod were replacing the grasses. It was transforming into an “old field”, picturesque but a poor grass producer. Burning didn’t help since the grasses are cool season species intolerant of burning. And burning is hazardous to practice in a forested region.
The grasses are tolerant of grazing though since they are pasture grass species like brome, orchard, timothy, and fescue. I had thought for some time about getting grazing animals to keep about half the area as grassland because some open space would benefit certain bird and insect species. The manure of the grazing animals would also initiate changes in the composition of the soil’s microflora and other soil inhabitants. The rest of the grassland I would plant with more asters and goldenrods and with scattered clumps of trees and shrubs and from time to time allow grazers in there. For garden mulch I would buy year-old hay from a neighbor which would really save me a lot of time.
But what kind of grazers? All I knew about were large herbivores like cattle or horses. But cattle and horses need a lot of food. I calculated that the total acreage I wanted to give over to grazing would not adequately support more than 1,200 pounds body weight of a grazer which is close to what one cow or horse would weigh. One 1,200 pound animal would exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the soil with each step.
I also had to consider that since I am the only person here any large animal might be a real challenge. Suppose one escaped while I was gone for the day? Sheep sounded good but I didn’t know much about them except for the really big breeds and again I didn’t want an animal that weighed more than me. Too much trouble if it got loose. Fencing would need to be very strong.
Then I saw them at a farm market friend’s place. Shetland sheep, a ram and a ewe. Gentle, little sheep weighing around a hundred pounds, tough and able to tolerate cold weather. Not only that but they come in different colors and shades of white, gray, brown, black, and some have two colors of wool mixed together. I thought of the possibilities of selling wool that came in natural colors. And because they weigh about 100 pounds I could easily keep 10 adult sheep on the 2.75 acres of land I wanted grazed. The more I learned about Shetland sheep, a rare breed dating back to the Iron Age in Northern Europe, the more I wanted them. I also thought they would fit in very well with my plans to use part of this land for agroforestry (the subject of a future post).
About a month later I found out that a family north of here was selling most of their sheep and that they were Shetlands. They had a ram, four adult ewes and one female lamb. Did I want to buy them? Yes, I did! The only catch was I had to promise that I would not eat them. That was easy since I do not eat meat. Eggs I do eat, but not meat so they were safe with me (my chickens will eventually retire and die of old age).
In about four weeks I had fenced off a half-acre, and built a shed out of log poles with a sheet metal roof and a manger for hay. I picked them up in late April just as the grass was greening. In the next few weeks I bought more fencing and posts to finish enclosing the pasture and dividing it into paddocks. Then, on June 20, there was a flood. That story is for the next chapter.