Everything we do at Central Grazing Company begins with the soil. And for our Head Shepherdess, Jacqueline Smith, that all starts with the lambing season in the spring. The timing of the lambing is intentional — as is every step of the rotational grazing management system Jacqueline employs at the farm. The process is designed to build and improve the health of the soil, which is the foundation for a healthy pasture, healthy sheep, and healthy meat for the customers of Central Grazing.
"We run a flock of about 350 ewes on 400 acres, but the carrying capacity is closer to 800 sheep for that acreage," says Jacqueline. "As our pastures continue to improve under our rotational grazing management practices, we can continue to add more sheep, the biodiversity and soil microbes will continue to improve, and we will provide higher nutritional value for the sheep, meaning we will provide more nutrition from the same amount of space.”
We sat down with Jacqueline to learn more about springtime on the farm, the realities of lambing season, and the seasonal activities in a pastured grazing system.
Let's take today as an example. We are going to sort market lambs from breeding ewes. While we are sorting, we will perform medical checks and evaluations on all the sheep and administer ear tags for those who lost or need them. This work is all done by me, one full-time employee, and one part-time employee.
In early March, our sheep are starting to lamb. We use the word "Lambageddon" to describe lambing season because it is such an intense time on the farm. When the ewes start having lambs, there will be a few, then a pause, and then there will be a handful of days with 20-plus lambs in a single day.
We are also caring for "bottle lambs" during this period. Some ewes, for a variety of reasons — cold spring, weak mothering instincts, too many lambs, so on — need extra support caring for their lambs. We hand-feed these lambs. We start with providing colostrum from ewe's milk if possible, then milk replacer, using special rubber nipples on water bottles. Then the lambs switch to a bucket-feed system, where we hang buckets with milk replacer on a fence line with a series of nipples attached to the bottom edges of the bucket for the lambs. We do that until the lambs are fully weaned.
All of the sheep, including the lambs, always remain on pasture. The lambs we are hand-rearing stay in special pens right alongside the flock, so they all stay in contact.
We have six livestock guardian dogs, including Spanish Mastiff/Polish Tatra crosses and Great Pyrenees. They are all Old World breeds, ones who would be raised with the flock and travel with the shepherd into the mountains as the flock grazed. These dogs are not pets — they are working animals bred and trained to guard the flock from our main threat, coyotes. We have two new puppies – Karkachan/Maremma crosses — who protect this year's batch of lambs.
Sheep have a five-month gestation, which we time so that the lambing period happens right before the spring grass growth. This way, the moms and lambs take advantage of the new spring grasses, and the lambs can learn to work in this rotational pasture system. We use temporary, mobile electric fencing to hold and move the flock. We mow the paddock areas along the fenceline, then set the fence along that mowed path. We move the water, minerals, and sheep into the paddock. There are guardian dogs that stay both within and around the perimeter.
We do fast rotations after the first tender grasses gain a little hardiness. We start rotating the flock daily, typically from April through December. We aim for a 90-day resting period between the places we graze to let the roots grow deeper, stabilizing the soil. The long roots tap into groundwater, making the pastures more resilient from drought and creating more biodiversity on top of the soil. Our rams are in with the ewes for about half of the year, as they mate seasonally.
In December, we move the flock into a winter paddock area. We select where to keep the flock based on the needs of the land, where they can provide weed suppression and targeted nutrient-density improvement. This also lets the other pasture areas grow in, giving the flock tender spring greens that haven’t been trampled.
Our goal is to be 100% grass-fed, and as part of that goal, we are working on improving the genetics of our flock. We select for good mothering skills, proficiencies of converting grass into muscle, and twinning rates — we like to see about two lambs per ewe, three for the top performers. Every year, we are also improving the pasture to have an abundance of stockpiled grasses for our sheep in the growing and off-growing season.
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