Spreading the wealth

Just so you know, the “wealth” of this blog is actually about manure. I suspect that most of you don’t think of manure — particularly sheep manure — as wealth, but if you stick with me, I’ll try to  explain. Sheep manure can be a very enriching thing!

All of the ewes are still grazing, even though it is December. Here, a portion of the low nutrition group grazes the Fire Circle Pasture.

All of the ewes are still grazing, even though it’s December. Here, a portion of the low-nutrition group grazes the Fire Circle Pasture.

Although I realize that it’s mid-December, the ground here in Iowa has not yet frozen. This is the first time in our sixteen winters of shepherding that the sheep have been grazing this late in the season. This is a great boon to us, since every bale of hay that they don’t eat is money saved. We can always feed out the bales next winter that they don’t eat during this one, so it’s not wasted. I load up the hay feeders with their daily ration. If they eat it, fine. If they don’t, I simply refill the portion they have eaten to fill the feeders the next day.

One of the benefits of late-season grazing is that they’re dividing their eating between barn and fields — and they much prefer the fields. In the normal cycle of sheep, food goes in one end and high-quality fertilizer comes out the other. When they graze throughout the summer, their fertilizer replaces the nutrients that have been taken from the fields in the grazing process. We try to eliminate loafing areas (a corner where the sheep all congregate, dumping that good fertilizer in only one corner of the field) to allow their fertilizer to cover a wider range.

Once we begin feeding hay full time, however, this cycle of nutrients falls apart. The sheep spend all of their time loafing around the hay feeders and drop their manure there. We must expend time, labor, and energy (both human and mechanical in the form of the tractor) to clear out the manure and dump it into a pile. The pile is then removed by local farmers for their fields. I am paying for the hay that goes in, but get only a minor benefit from the manure that comes out — and it’s a lot of work in the process! But then there is this year….

Manure dropped across the concrete pad in front of the low nutrition feeders in a 24 hour period

Manure dropped across the concrete pad in front of the low-nutrition feeders in a 24-hour period

Because our sheep are only consuming about half of their nutrition in the barn, they are spending most of their days (and nights) out in our fields, stopping into the barn for only a couple of hours in the early morning to pick over the grass bales. They drop their manure across the fields on the way in and on the way out as well as during the time they are grazing away from the barn. I began to wonder how much time they are actually spending in the barn area as opposed to in the fields. Typically at this time of year, it is nearly 100%. With our usual cold, snowy winters, our sheep tend to stick to the paddock just outside of the barn.

To find out just how much manure is still accumulating in the paddock area rather than our fields, yesterday I scraped off the concrete pad next to where we feed out our grass hay in the Storage Barn. The lower nutrition group of about 40 ewes must cross this area both coming in to the feeders and going back out to the fields. This morning I was able to see exactly how much manure was dropped within 24 hours, and it wasn’t much (see photo).

This is actually a very good thing. First, we will have less manure cleaning to do this winter. Second, I’m paying for hay, and our sheep are dropping the resulting manure across our fields. That is to say, instead of returning to the soil what that soil had produced, they are dropping onto the fields nutrients that were produced on another farm’s fields — an enrichment of our acreage instead of the typical balance.

If you look at the pattern of droppings in the photo, you can see that they are fairly well distributed across the concrete area — even though the shortest way from field to feeders is across the top of the photo. (The darker area at the top right is actually inside the barn, and the top left is the path coming in from the fields.) In this dispersal pattern, you see just how efficient sheep are at fertilizing the fields — and with careful management, leaving those fields better than before the sheep arrived. The fact that there isn’t a lot of manure (in the photo) for nearly forty sheep tells me that they are, indeed, spreading most of it across our fields.

Not many people think of manure as wealth, but the cost of fertilizing acres of fields is no minor thing. We see this enrichment to some degree every fall, but because of this year’s mild weather, we are seeing it for a much longer period. This is positive for us in two ways: less hay eaten by the flock, and more manure dropped out in the fields where it does our farm the most good. It’s definitely our flock’s version of spreading the wealth!

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