At Scalawag Farm, we strive to ensure that animals can exhibit their true selves. One of the key components of this is being able to raise our animals on pasture, and to rotate them throughout the property. This is of great importance particularly for the cows and goats. Goats, by their nature, are not preferential grass eaters the way sheep and cows are. The term generally used to describe a goat’s preferred diet is “browse,” in noun form. Put simply, goats get picky and bored when they only have one or two types of vegetation to munch on – they would much rather have a wide variety to choose from, and they also love to move around while they, well, browse (the verb, this time)!
At our apprenticeship farm, we learned methods of setting up and rotating pasture using portable electric netting. These portable electric nets come in a variety of heights and lengths. They have probably been our biggest investment on the farm since we came here, having to purchase more and more lengths as our herd increased in size. We have found them to be an invaluable tool, and are probably one of the biggest reasons we are able to raise our animals the way we want to.
The fencing allows one or two people to quickly and easily set up a paddock (or pen, or pasture, whatever your choice of terminology), in any number of environments. They are powered either by a small solar panel, or by a 12 volt battery, and are energized by an “energizer” (sometimes called a charger or fencer). The shocks are not painful for the animals, but instead are, well, shocking. All of the animals have a good memory tied to their close-encounters with the fence, and it is rare that an animal “tests” a fence intentionally more than once.
Instead of just fencing in our goats on grass-centric pastures (which we try to avoid, anyway), we can extend the areas, or make them kind of irregularly shaped, to include areas full of their favorite non-grass vegetation. Goats are the supreme vegetation managers, even if the cows might clip things shorter or cover more area, The goats are sure to get to everything. As their managers, however, we really need to stay on top of where they are at in a given paddock, because once they are done, they are done! They will fuss and refuse to clip a pasture all the way down to the soil, instead arguing and demanding from us that we move them; we always oblige, accepting our fates as the managers of a herd of very spoiled goats.
It is because of these electril fences, in combination with the way we have managed our fields since we arrived, that allows our goats to still remain quite exploratory while also still being safely fenced in, without the need for a large, permanent fence (at least, so far!).
An issue we faced early on at our property was that the large open spaces we have had been used exclusively for hay production for a number of years. While they weren’t intensively managed – the hay farmers did spread manure periodically, and, at least in recent years, were not using chemical herbicides or pesticides — they also weren’t in the best shape. the long-term cycle of simply mowing and adding manure for fertilizer wasn’t going to lend the land to being ecologically and biologically diverse. In fact, we are still managing an invasive weed, called smooth bedstraw, that easily spreads and prospers on land managed exactly like this.
After consulting with a few other local farmers, it was suggested to us that one of the best ways to deal with smooth bedstraw was to put animals on the land in question a bit earlier in the spring than one might normally. The simplest way to deal with this weed is to encourage its competitors – which, in our case, was anything that will grow taller than the bedstraw. It generally stays low to the ground, so if it’s kept short and other grasses and vegetation are allowed to out-grow the bedstraw, then the invasive weed’s performance is diminished, and it is more easily dealt with.
At Scalawag Farm, the practice of pasture raising animals has also extended to our pigs! One of the reasons we became interested in and subsequently fans of the American Guinea hog was that they truly thrive on pasture. These animals have also been very helpful anytime we have a need to clear an area – whether it is because we need the area for a garden, or because we are trying to target an area that is full of something problematic – i.e. small shrubs, or the aforementioned smooth bedstraw. Given just the right amount of time, our pigs will clear an entire area, leaving maybe a bit of shrubbery behind (burdock and thistle, for example), which are then easy to remove by hand. The ground is left completely bare, allowing us to reseed it to our preference.