Grazing a mix of species can be an effective way to reclaim and rejuvenate land that once was productive pasture. Mixed-species grazing can mean having two or more species on the same land at the same time, or it can mean having a succession of species on the same land over a span of time. Dot Perkins, field specialist in food and agriculture, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, suggested some ways to reclaim old pastures by putting animals to work.
Using animals takes longer than using machinery, but they may be more suited to working uneven land, and they can “earn their keep.” Animals can be used primarily as a power source, pulling mowers, discs, plows, harrows and seeders, or they can be employed using their own equipment and resources. “Don’t ever underestimate the plow value of a pig’s snout,” Perkins said. “Think of pigs as shovels plus ham and bacon.”
As you plan, bear in mind your ultimate goal. If you want stumps removed, keeping pigs in one area for a season should do the job. Given lots of space, they will work selectively. While pigs are best at removing stumps, sheep and goats excel at clearing land by killing shrubs and trees. To save selected trees, wrap them with chicken wire. While goats and sheep are eating, they’re also distributing seeds and fertilizer.
Should you select animal or mechanical options to reclaim old pastures? Perkins said, “In the end, it’s a personal choice. Using animals avoids using fossil fuels. But there are no studies showing that either machinery or animals is better.”
On overgrown, sloped, rocky land in the Northeast, the first year of pasture reclamation could begin with goats working to kill shrubs. Goats, as well as sheep and cows, will girdle trees and kill them. The second year, pigs could be used in a small area (about 0.25 acre for two or more pigs) to destroy stumps and to dig and turn over the soil. If you add grass seed, pigs will till it in.
“Mixing species results in more complete use of pastures,” Perkins said. “Both land and animals benefit.”
Goats and sheep work well together. Goats browse, removing brush from a pasture. Sheep graze on the grasses. The personalities of the two species are generally compatible. Lambs and kids will play together. Rams will not hurt the goats, and bucks will not hurt the sheep. There is, however, one significant issue: Both species are susceptible to parasites. If goats and sheep are kept together, you must be vigilant about parasite management.
Pigs can be effective with other animals, depending in part on the personalities of the individual animals involved, but Perkins advised caution. “Pigs are powerful, and they’re omnivores,” she said. Because they are omnivores, pigs may attack other species, and they also require supplemental feeding. One relatively safe way to utilize the stump grinding and tilling abilities of pigs along with the brush-removing talents of goats is to give the goats a way out when they feel threatened. A low fence (2 feet high) will contain pigs while allowing goats to jump into their own fenced area.
Goats work well with chickens. As chickens clean up after goats, they also spread the goats’ (and their own) manure. Chickens can easily get under the goats’ fencing to exit the area.
Cattle can be used with poultry, including wild turkeys. Poultry will eat insects in the pasture. They also break up cow patties and thus contribute to fertilizing the pasture.
Because birds are good at scratching, eat closer, and do not get parasites from the animals they follow, fenced poultry should always follow other animals. Poultry also needs short grass, whereas cows, for instance, get parasites from grazing too close to the ground. Controlling moisture helps manage parasites.
It is possible to save up to 30 percent of the cost of raising broilers by putting them on pasture, but because they rapidly outgrow their ability to run fast, they need to be protected from predators. To use broilers in mixed-species grazing, enclose a limited area, but make it no smaller than 20 by 20 feet for 50 birds. Do not make the enclosure large enough for hawks to swoop in, and add bird netting for more protection. In mixed-species grazing, the small area for broilers is within the larger one of the grazing species. Chickens need to be moved at least once a day to spread manure, but may need to be moved up to three times a day to ensure they have a constant food supply.
Sheep, goats, horses and cows can be mixed and matched as long as their total numbers do not exceed one animal unit per acre. One animal unit is equal to 1,000 pounds.
Calculating animal units
Calculating the number of animals that can be grazed in a given area is generally based on the concept that one 1,000-pound cow, with or without an unweaned calf, equals one animal unit. One grazing unit is equal to one grazing cow or approximately 10 sheep.
In mixed-species grazing, fencing is always an issue and a limiting factor. While cows can be contained with one or two strands of fencing and about 2,000 volts, goats and sheep require at least five strands of wire and a minimum of 4,000 volts. Horses spook easily and will run through fences they cannot readily see, so while barbed wire is fine for cows, it cannot be used to contain horses.
Calves can be grazed with goats if fencing is adequate for the goats. “When goats see something, they run away from it,” Perkins said. “Calves just run to run – they bounce around.”
Having and knowing how to use a fence charger is crucial to any rotational grazing, including grazing of mixed species. Once animals have been moved from pasture A to pasture B, a sufficient charge will prevent animals from returning to the first pasture. “When using electric fencing, be sure to understand well how an electric fence works and how to ground it properly,” Perkins said. “Extension agents and fencing specialists are available to help calculate the correct size charger for a given length of fencing.” It’s better to have a charger that’s too big than one that’s too small.
When putting up fencing, try to exclude wet and clay areas. Moisture and clay will rot animals’ feet.
Feed and water
As you evaluate areas to reclaim, remember that grazing animals will need water. Omnivores such as pigs and chickens also require supplemental feed. Bear in mind that you may be the one carrying it to them. Herbivores, however, may require no more than adequate forage.
Reclaimed pasture can also benefit from evaluation of soil nutrients. Bony soil (soil low in nutrients) left unenriched will quickly begin its return to forest. Previously forested land is generally acidic, but applying lime will improve it. Although there are many forms of lime, agricultural ground limestone is the only one safe for animals. Do not use hydrated limestone. Adding moisture to hydrated limestone will result in a caustic substance that will burn animals. Wet snouts and mouths provide enough moisture to cause this reaction.
In selecting a limestone, consider its texture – the finer the better – and its ability to neutralize acid. A ton of limestone should be equivalent to 1 ton of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The coarser the lime, the longer it takes to react with soil. Limestone should be tilled into the soil, since limestone applied as a topdressing will percolate into soil at the rate of only 0.5 inch per year. Pasture pH should be 6 to 6.5. At 6.5, all pasture plants will grow.
Wood ash should not be used in pastures. While wood ash breaks down easily in soil and is useful for gardens and fields, it is not acceptable in pastures. Moisture from animals’ mouths and noses would mix with wood ash, resulting in the formation of lye, which will burn animals.
Grazing reclaimed pasture
As you consider putting animals onto reclaimed pasture, you can use a grazing stick to estimate the amount of usable forage. Grazing sticks differ and are customized by geographic region. For links to sources of grazing sticks in your state, go to http://bit.ly/1nLLafV.
Grazing sticks are good tools. Old-timers had wise rules: “Take half the grass; leave half. It takes grass to grow grass.” Remove animals from the pasture if plants become so short that you can see animals’ hooves in the pasture.