It’s November and whether you have had your first snowfall or you live in a southern climate where the nights are simply getting a bit cooler this time of year, November means that the growth of the grass in your pastures has slowed or stopped altogether. Whether you have a handful of sheep on a small family farm or own and manage a larger flock, responsible shepherds understand that this is the time of year to prepare your pastures so that they can bounce back and provide excellent forage for your flock next year. Today I’ll touch upon winter grazing, and pasture management for winter, providing some tips to ensure your pasture is in top shape for spring.
Winter Grazing Sheep
While most northern farms have pastures that are blanketed with snow for the winter and winter grazing sheep is out of the question, there are some important things to remember at this time of year when you contemplate how you are managing your grasslands during the slow season.
Some things to remember at this time of year:
- Extension livestock budgets consistently show that for northern farms winter feed costs make up 60 percent of total annual expenses for those who feed hay to their sheep. Smart sheep pasture management is critical to reducing this cost.
- If grass is still growing in your pasture but has been growing slowly then some wise rotational grazing, paired with fertilizer could provide extended grazing days for your flock, saving you money.
- Be careful at this time of year to prevent overgrazing. Too many animals on too small a plot or allowing your animals to graze for too long once your grasslands have stopped their growth can produce numerous issues such as hungry animals, damaged roots on your grass stands and erosion. If this happens you can expect mud, lameness and higher costs associated with feeding hay or silage late into the spring.
Rotational Grazing is Still Important
If you haven’t already done so, this is an excellent time of year to consider putting in place rotational grazing practices. This, paired with fertilizer (if needed – consider a soil test or consulting your local extension agent to see if this is a good investment for your fields), can extend the grass growing season by allowing each stand to recover and by encouraging new growth.
Once you’ve determined that your pasture has stopped growing, bring your sheep in from the fields and make sure that all seed-heads of scrub grass and weeds which your sheep prefer not to eat are knocked down with a mower or scythe. This will help to ensure that there’s a good opportunity for the best forage to thrive when the snow melts.
It’s always a good idea to pay attention to this task in the fall and to take time each autumn to cut or mow these invading species before they go to seed in your fields.
You should pay attention to and reduce your typical stocking rates in fall so that your sheep don’t do permanent damage to their preferred legumes, forbs, and grasses.
Consider Overseeding Just Before Winter
Also consider spreading new seed and/or working on your pasture’s pH level once your sheep are off of your pasture for the winter. This will help leguminous plants like clover, alfalfa and vetch have the chance to take root and thrive during the spring before you turn your sheep out to pasture.
Finally – the low grass levels in your fields, combined with cooler temperatures make this a great time of year to check your fences, make repairs and budget for any improvements to your fencing which you’d like to complete in the spring.
Tip: If you are buying hay for sheep – consider buying “second cut” or “second crop” hay. This hay is the second harvest from a field and as a result it has fewer stalks (which sheep tend to pick over) and more leaves (which sheep devour!). While second cut hay tends to be more expensive, this hay has a much higher nutritional value and feeding it will produce less waste – your sheep will likely eat it all!