Thursday, January 23, 2014


Last fall, the Nature Conservancy Magazine ran an article about the shepherds in Patagonia, a part of Argentina on the southern tip of South America. They graze their flocks on a treeless highlands, constantly scoured by the wind. Decades of overgrazing have degraded the land until there aren’t enough grasses to hold the soil when the wind blows; until there aren’t enough grasses to shelter the ground birds or feed the sheep.

Over grazing our pastures is something I worry about, especially in late summer. In June, we have more pasture than we need. I try to rotate the sheep through each of our ten pastures as rapidly as possible, to get every plant grazed so that it doesn’t go to seed. The goal is to leave the sheep on a pasture just long enough for them to eat every grass down to about 4 inches and then move them on to a new pasture. Sheep are constantly trying to mess up our rotational grazing. They like the taste or mouth feel or something of some grasses more than others, so they start complaining as soon as they have eaten the good grasses. If we give in and move them as soon as they complain. The not so tasty grasses just keep growing and eventually go to seed. Once they’ve gone to seed, they don’t grow anymore. That means, that in the heat of August, when the tasty cool season grasses have gone dormant, there are no grasses growing for the sheep to eat. Our pastures are done for the season until we get some good rains.

If, on the other hand, I made the sheep eat the not so tasty warm season grasses when they were grazing a pasture, those grasses wouldn’t go to seed and would keep growing even through the heat of August, giving us a steady source of feed all summer and fall.

The rotational grazing works because the sheep can eat only what I give them, not what they want. On farms where the sheep are put out on one big pasture in the spring and allowed to eat whatever they want, the number of desirable plants decreases and the undesirable species take over because the sheep just keep eating the new sprout of the tasty plants and eventually kill the plants from overgrazing.

Sustainable grazing can actually increase the number of animals grazed while increasing the biodiversity of a pasture. In the grasslands of Argentina, farmers who are practicing this new holistic pasture management have seen increases in stocking rates, increases in plant diversity, increases in wild birds and mammals, and decreases in wind and water erosion of their ranches.

A century and a half of continuous grazing has converted 20 million acres of lush Argentine grassland to desert. Ovis XXI, a local group of Patagonian ranchers, the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, and Patagonia, Inc., an American outdoor wear company with a focus on conservation, have been collaborating on a project to restore and preserve 10% of those grasslands. The ranchers have been experimenting with new sustainable grazing techniques. The Nature Conservancy helped Ovis XXI develop GRASS (Patagonian Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard) a voluntary system in which ranches that reach specific environmental goals earn certification from Ovis. The Nature Conservancy has also been supplying up-front costs to help with planning and changes such as fencing to help ranchers make the transition from continuous grazing to holistic management. Patagonia, Inc. has helped with up-front costs and is shifting their wool purchasing from traditional sources to wool which has been sustainably raised and is certified.

I’m not a big enough wool supplier to sell my wool to Patagonia, Inc. Besides, the Argentine grasslands need restoration and protection far more than my 80 acres. But I am always trying to learn new techniques that will make my lands healthier than they were when we began farming. Holistic management is based on learning your pastures, watching them and responding to their needs as well as the needs of the sheep. Last summer, we nearly ran out of pasture. We were only a few days away from feeding hay, when the rains came and the grasses greened up. This summer, I hope to do a better job of rotating pastures for the sake of the sheep and of the pasture grasses

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