Because of last year’s heavy parasite season, this year we kept our sheep off of most of our fields until about July 1. Of course, those fields didn’t stop growing simply because there were no animals to graze them. Keeping up with spring growth isn’t easy even in a normal year, and this year I’m seeing grass with seed heads at armpit height. Even I find it hard to believe how deep the grass has become.
This deep grass was kind of the point, though. The idea was to allow it to grow while the parasite eggs, deposited in the manure last year, hatched out. The resulting larvae would go up and down the grass all through the spring and early summer, using up their energy stores and eventually dying off and clearing our fields of sheep parasites. As far as we can tell, the plan worked — but it has left us with incredibly deep and over-mature fields, and we will likely spend the rest of this summer dealing with that!
Sheep don’t much like over-mature plants. They can be picky about what they eat, and they much prefer shorter grass that has regrown after being eaten or mowed off. In an over-mature field, where there is no short grass and the tall grass is full of seed heads that blow in the breeze, sheep will generally eat the flat grass blades they can find attached to the seed heads or the understory of clover and other legumes that grow close to the ground. Some of the adult ewes will nibble at the seed heads, but the proportion of seeds to grass in their diet is minor – maybe 10-20% of the total, from what I can tell.
Whenever I move sheep from one field to the next, I mow the newly empty field. My reasoning is that what remains is obviously unpalatable to my sheep. They have eaten what they liked and left the other stuff behind. I don’t really want what remains to go to seed, making more of the same unpalatable stuff, nor do I want it to shade out the good stuff and prevent that from regrowing. If I mow everything down to the same level — usually about 3 to 5″ — I am taking little off of the plants that the sheep like but quite a lot off the the less desirable stuff. Over time this boosts the grasses and weeds that my sheep love.
My fields are so very overgrown right now that it’s really hard on the mower and it leaves bulky chewed-up grass rills across the pasture that will kill off all the grass underneath. The bigger issue, however, is that when the lambs first enter the field, the growth is quite a bit taller than most of them, even this late in the season! Despite a full week of trampling the tall grass as the lambs eat and lie down to sleep, many of the lambs are essentially buried in grass! This weekend we will once again move the lambs into the next field and the ewes into the field that the lambs just left. I’ll have no problem finding the ewes. Not only are they much taller, but the lambs have also thinned out the grasses over a week’s worth of eating.
I still check on all of my sheep every day, and that’s where this all gets really challenging. To find the lambs, I have to stand in a good vantage point in a nearby field and make a mental note of any lamb who is not accompanied by other lambs, since when sheep are sick or unhappy, they tend to isolate themselves. Sick sheep attract predators and so they instinctively remove themselves to save the flock. Once I have a mental picture of where the groups and individuals are, I wade into the tall growth of their grazing field and try to locate them.
Finding the sheep once I’m in there can be a challenge. They generally don’t stand in one place and eat everything around them. Instead they often stand shoulder-to-shoulder, take a bite and step forward, take another bite and again step forward, continuing across the field. I first try to find the individuals, since they are most likely to need immediate attention. After I have checked all of them, I try to imagine where the groups would have moved over the elapsed time and see whether I can find them. Do I know for sure that I see every one of my lambs every day? No, there is no way I can know for sure. There are just too many of them, and they keep moving. Do I feel confident that I have checked enough lambs to avoid catastrophe? I guess the answer to that is maybe. I try hard to find all of the little lambs that lie down in the tall pockets of grass, but I sometimes worry about those I missed.
It won’t be much longer before I will have mowed (at least once) all five fields that are currently in rotation. As a result, the regrowth will not be as tall, making my inspections much more accurate and giving me better confidence that all is well. Until then, I try to be thorough and I raise a prayer that all will truly be well, even if I missed one or two on my rounds.