This is the second in a series about the grazing management changes the Wahl family has made and how it has improved soil health and increased animal productivity dramatically. (See the first here.) It’s drawn from an article by Robert Hathorne with photos by Tracy Robillard, both of the Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service. I’ve added the videos they made and suggestions for how you can translate the principles the Wahl’s are using to your own operation.
A Mobile Flock
The Wahl Family has been raising sheep, cattle and timber on the Oregon coast since their forebears from Scotland arrived in 1874. Last week’s article started with their realization that led to two major changes to their operation: Sheep don’t want more acres to graze, they want better food and more diversity on the acres they’ve got.
The realization led to two major changes in the operation:
1. providing a diverse diet, and
2. keeping the flock on the move.
Last week’s article looked at the Wahls’ pasture diversity and the impact it had on their flock. But diverse forage is only part of the equation. The Wahls have about 4,000 mouths to feed, and that means if the sheep are going to eat, they’ve got to keep moving.
Typical sheep operations will move sheep from one paddock or section of a pasture to another every 3 to seven days. This allows grass to grow back between grazing periods. Overgrazing results when sheep aren’t moved often enough or at all. This leads to plant stress, depleted soil and reduced livestock forage.
At Wahl Farm, sheep move every day.
With nothing but a four wheeler and portable electric fencing, the Wahls move nearly 1,000 sheep from one six-tenths of an acre paddock to the next, every day. By keeping the paddocks small and moving the sheep frequently, it’s possible to provide significantly more grass on fewer acres than traditional operations.
“If you’d have told me five years ago you can run 930 sheep on 19 acres for a month, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Pete says.
“But that’s what we’re doing.”
The health of his herd has also improved thanks to the mob grazing system.
“That was the real stunner, the change in health,” Pete says. “It isn’t change in genetics…you can’t change that in 12 months, but the animal health changed that quick. And the consumption of antibiotics and worm medicines – it dropped.”
In the 2 minute video below, Pete talks about why this has happened. When he grazed 6 inch grass high in protein, there was a lot of diarrhea in the sheep. When he grazes a more mature stand, that’s less of a problem, plus the trampling provides ground cover to keep the soil moist. The tall grazing also makes it hard for parasites. Migrating up and down short grass is easier for the larvae and sheep come in contact with them more often. With longer rest periods, the larvae are dead by the time the sheep arrive in pasture.
But that isn’t the only difference. Increased pasture diversity and moving the animals more often has increased their productivity, and with it the operation’s profit.
In this 2 minute video, Pete describes the difference. He says that in In the late ’60s, the ranch ran about 20 cows and 900 ewes on the home place and they had access to every acre on it. They got about 85% lamb crop and 85 pound lambs. Sometimes the lamb crop even dropped as low as 68%. Now, they run about 4,000 ewes, half of them on the home place. Last year, with 4,200 ewes, including the replacement ewes and they had 8,012 live lambs. He’s also replacing single lamb ewes with ewes that give twins to reduce the number of replacement he has to carry. This has made a drastic difference in net sales.
How Hard Is It To Run the Fencing For This?
Pete Wahl talks about the ease of moving his herd in this 2 minute video below. He starts by telling us that he can put up a 300 foot, 2 wire electric fence and move water and a hose in about 20 minutes to half an hour, and an additional 20 to 30 minutes to check the 1,000 animal herd. Later in the year when his herds are just ewes and he runs more of them together, the time to move them is much less.
When he compares that to feeding or making hay, it’s a smaller time investment. He uses a four-wheeler for his fencing work, and compares that positively to his former investment in all the hay making equipment.
It Can Take Years to Become an Overnight Success
Of course this didn’t happen overnight. The Wahl’s have been doing some form of rotational grazing for at least a decade. Their rotation has gotten more intensive as they’ve gone along. As forage quality has increased, so too has animals per acre and rotation intervals. They started with cover crops on pasture around three years ago. That’s when things really took off in terms of forage production, animal health and gain, and drops in input costs such as fertilizer.
We’ve covered cover crops and diversity and the Wahls’ mobile flock in the first two parts of the series. Next up – does it pay? Pete Wahl shares his skepticism that all this would make a difference and what he thinks about it now.
Want to read more?
There’s a lot to know about cover crops and we’ve got a lot more for you to read. Click here to visit the On Pasture archives on this topic.
If you have thoughts or questions, please do share them below! Your input will help guide future articles.