When we began our farming adventure, we never thought about tapping into resources beyond our property line to feed the animals but we quickly came to realize that our ~2 acres of woods/pasture wasn’t going to support our sheep through a complete grazing season. In the months leading up to the arrival of the sheep, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out exactly how much pasture was required per sheep. Frustratingly, most literature on the subject uses that all too annoying and meaningless phrase “it depends”. OK, I get it now…it depends on the type and quality of the forage available on the land – not the acreage. One acre with a good mix of grasses and legumes would support our sheep far longer than 10 acres of weedy grass. Additionally, we made (yet another) rookie mistake and considered the amount of pasture we would need based on our breeding flock of four (three ewes and a ram). We failed to take into consideration that their offspring would be around for the entire grazing season as well, doubling the flock size.
So, our options were to keep them on our property and supplement them with hay from the feed store when the forage ran low or look for “greener pastures”. We are fortunate to live in a rural area where most homes have at least three acres; and those in our immediate vicinity, had either horse or livestock on the property at some point in the past, so the basic infrastructure (fencing/shelter) was already in place.
We also came to realize that, like us, our neighbors chose this location because they enjoy the rural lifestyle and scenery. And although they no longer maintain animals on their property, they would prefer grazing over mowing for pasture maintenance. This has created a win-win situation in which the neighbors get their fields “mowed” and we don’t need to supplement the sheep with hay. Our field gets a much needed break as well and an opportunity to regrow. That being said, we do bring the sheep back to our property for 2-3 days each month for a little “landscaping” work.
Last year was the first complete grazing season we had with the sheep and we kept them at the barn directly across the street. It is a beautiful property with a one acre horse paddock and a three stall, solar-paneled barn. As the fencing was three board horse fencing, we needed to set up electric netting around a grazing area and move it every 4-7 days, “depending” on the quality of the forage at that particular time (spring good, late summer not-so-good). This was quite labor intensive but it worked. We brought the sheep into one of the stalls in the barn every night and utilized the deep bedding method, learning another valuable lesson. A concrete floor, common for a horse stall, is not as useful for sheep. Sheep urinate and defecate…a lot. Good for the pasture, not so much for the mucker of the stall (my husband).
This year, we are using the property which is kitty corner from our house. The gentleman living there is over 100 years old and has lived on that property for at least 50 years. (An interesting side note, they owned the property our house is built on, prior to selling it to the previous homeowners.) We did a bit of work around the property, taking down some dead branches to open up the area underneath the magnificent pine trees that encircle the pasture. (The son told me he and his dad planted those trees 50 years ago!)
This barn was a bit more rugged but sheep don’t need much and this one had a dirt floor. We cleaned it up, rehung the doors, fixed the ceiling…and voila, they now enjoy a two bedroom suite at night.
The best part of this property is that there is an existing woven wire fence around most of the pasture. It needed some TLC due to branches that had fallen on it and some missing sections but what we like about it is that we need very little electric netting to contain the sheep. We use it primarily as a means to divide the grazing area and will only move it about every four weeks. The sheep are enjoying the variety of forages on this property and the condition of the pasture seems to be improving nicely with regular grazing and fertilization.
In addition to the use and maintenance of the pastures, our current and past neighbors have helped us on many other occasions. They pet sat for the sheep, chickens, and dogs when we went out of town; they wrangled a few of our sheep when they got loose and ran into their yard (during their daughter’s high school volleyball team’s party!); they called when they heard strange noises by the barn late at night, they unstuck a lamb from the electric netting one day; and my personal favorite, was the call when one of the lambs was running around with a bucket stuck on his head.
And greatly appreciated over the past two years, were the all-too-often calls when the sheep “escaped” the fencing. In return for this kindness, we’ve offered eggs, sheepskin, meat, fertilizer, and the use of our tractor and other farming implements. And now, with the summer produce season upon us, one of our neighbors has offered us fresh vegetables from their extensive gardens.
We always thought we wanted to live a more rural lifestyle that inherently involves greater distances between neighbors and a certain level of isolation that is not experienced in a suburban setting but what we are finding is, that even with the geographic distance, we are still fortunate to experience the kindness that can be shared and expressed among neighbors.