Crow’s Nest: Intensive Grazing Workshop

October 3, 2012

I took the day off yesterday to attend a field day held by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Argiculture, to learn about using intensive rotational grazing to improve soil fertility and improve animal health. Specifically the workshop was about the techniques of setting up portable fencing efficiently to create the grazing rotations. The field day was held at Misty Knoll Farm in Royersford, where rotational grazing of ruminants is being used to improve pasture and provide the best quality of life for the animals on the farm.

It rained steadily for much of the day but that did not deter the farmer-participants. As one person noted, “We wouldn’t be getting much done in the rain back at home.”

We’re using prescribed grazing at the preserve, both goats and cattle, to achieve some specific management goals in a couple unique habitats at the preserve. There could be an opportunity to improve results if we subdivide the pastures and move the animals between those smaller units quickly. Besides, we’ve experienced some problems with our electric fencing that I wanted to know more about diagnosing.

In intensive rotational grazing, the animals are moved from one patch of grass to another, often daily, and when lightly grazed, grasses and clover rejuvenate more quickly than the weeds—so after a couple passes the pasture grows fewer weeds and offers better nutrition. Plus the animals spread their manure naturally as they move, saving the farmer time and fuel. (We use a similar process in our yard with our chicken tractor, a portable pen that we move every day. But we only have four birds; seeing it done in a farm setting is much more impressive.)

At Misty Knoll Farm, owner Sue Pengelly wants to raise her animals with their care and health foremost; letting the animals be themselves, eating their natural food and not standing in their own waste day after day is the way to do this. She also found that she could control some weeds by using this grazing style, leaving the animals present a bit longer to clear brushy areas where grasses will quickly return.

The rotations there include sheep, chickens, pigs, calves, goats, turkeys—each with a slightly different rotation pattern. She manages to get hay off of the pastures that are not immediately in rotation, which doesn’t prevent them from being available later in the season as pasture.

Yes, I learned a lot about the hardware and methods of setting up portable electric netting and strands of electric fencing to keep animals where you want them. But I also learned a lot about soil health, natural weed management, the use of livestock guarding dogs, and how to learn from what goes on at a farm—for example starting small and scaling up, and learning what you like to do and don’t like to do. Misty Knoll Farm also uses a unique model of farming where another farmer, Fabian Smith, runs some of the enterprise independently—exchanging access to land in return for additional help on the farm.

There’s no substitute for experience, and no more generous sharing of experience than you find on a PASA field day. I am grateful for the generosity of the hosts in inviting us out to their farm.

Posted by Daniel Barringer on October 3, 2012.