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Rotational Grazing Begins: On the Farm Q&A with Head Shepherdess Jacqueline Smith

Rotational grazing of sheep provides a series of symbiotic benefits to the soil, the grasses, the animals, and, ultimately, to us. In this Q&A, Jacqueline discusses mid-spring farm activities and what impact those have on the environment and the sheep.
sheep grazing at the central grazing company farm

The return of birdsong, the chorus of spring peepers, the almost audible stretching of the new grasses, and raucous calls between ewes and their lambs — this is the soundscape on a spring workday at the Central Grazing farm. 

This is an extremely busy time of year for Head Shepherdess Jacqueline Smith. The grasses are vulnerable, and grazing management requires additional effort and vigilance. Jacqueline and her small crew of farmhands must balance the desire of the flock to be on the fresh grass with the tenderness of the early pasture, rotating the flock daily from one concentrated area of pasture to another. 

In this interview, Jacqueline shares the sights, sounds, and science behind mid-spring on the farm.

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What is happening in the pastures in May? 

In spring, I get really excited when we see the grass turn green. The blades shift from brown to soft shades of green in a slow process over several days. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, the pastures become brightly verdant. We wait until the base grasses in the pasture are hardy — meaning they are big enough and strong enough to withstand early grazing — before moving the sheep onto those areas. The green blooms of the locust trees and the purple and pink redbud blossoms open at about the same time. These brilliant colors juxtaposed with the still-dormant brown trees, along with the green pastures — it is such a beautiful, hopeful, and fun time of year. 

The sounds and the wildlife also begin to change, as the migrating birds and spring peepers (chorus frogs) return in the early spring. We rejoice when we hear them. 

What is your primary focus with the flock at this time?

Moving the animals from the winter “sacrifice paddocks” into a grazing cycle is a fun, exciting, and hard day. (Learn more about early spring and lambing on the farm, including winter paddocks, in this interview with Jacqueline.) It takes a whole day to switch the flock to this moving cycle, and then we begin moving the flock every 24 hours.

The move is a slow, loud process for the first several days. The lambs are still young and don’t know what the movement is yet; they are learning from the ewes as they go forward for the grass, then back for their baby, and then try coaxing their baby to come along to the fresh grass. The move is incredibly loud with the calling back and forth! Sometimes, we have to pick up a few straggling lambs and carry them to the new paddock with their mom walking next to us. 

Over time, the moving process goes more smoothly as the lambs and the ewes learn to move together.

What’s happening underground and how does that relate to what is aboveground in the pastures? How does that impact the sheep? 

We broadcast a seed mixture in January and February, utilizing the ground temperature’s thaw-freeze cycle to naturally work the seeds into the ground. If we don’t get that done at the right time, we seed into the sheep’s current paddock, and the feeding sheep’s hooves help push the seeds into the ground. These warm-season grasses will be ready for grazing when the sheep come into that paddock again 90 days later. 

We start early season grazing because the sheep are so ready to eat grass. It’s hard for them to eat hay when they see the green grass on the other side of the fence. We all — shepherds and sheep — are happier when the flock is rotating in the pastures, but to protect these emerging young grasses, we must rotate them quickly (every 24 hours). 

This quick rotation schedule allows the grasses to recuperate and concentrate on building long root systems instead of leaf development. When the grass is not being cut, it sends energy to the roots. When it gets chopped down (in our case, eaten), the grass focuses back on growing the leaves to capture carbon. As the plant focuses on root growth between cuts, it stabilizes the soil and can grow longer, resilient roots that tap into groundwater. The roots also create a stronger symbiotic relationship with soil microbes. The grasses use carbon to grow, which they convert to hydrogen that feeds the microbes. The microbes put more nutrients into grass and root development.

We leave ample time, typically 90 days, between each 24-hour grazing period, concentrating the flock in one area for that short period of time. We focus on moving them fast, keeping them in controlled areas in an electric fence to hoof in seeds and lay waste to contribute nutrients back into the soil. The rotational cycle also helps us mitigate the use of dewormers or parasites because the life cycle has passed before we bring the animals back to that section of pasture. 

In the summer, when grasses are thick and biodiversity is greater, we slow down to every 24 grazing hours, which looks more like 36 total hours or so between moves.

How does this system impact the pastures over time?

This grazing system is similar to how prairies evolved, with great herds of herbivores roaming across wide territories in concentrated herds, moving as packs and not returning for a period of time to one area. This type of grazing unlocks native seedbeds, allowing additional grass and wildlife species who rely on various native plants to return. We see more species in the pastures, from shrews and snakes to hawks and owls.

While we are working on some species we don’t want to grow, we take note of what is growing naturally as a demonstration of what the soil needs. The plants the soil is naturally supporting, including the ones we do not want to grow, are an indication of what nutrients are readily available. What isn’t able to thrive indicates what nutrients are not accessible in the soil. Over time, we work to provide the nutrients and other species that provide what the soil is showing us it needs. 

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sheep grazing on midwestern grass under a blue sky, on a farm that practices ethical animal farming in lawrence, kansas