In early June I got an email from Dr. Ray Weil. You may know Ray as the author of The Nature and Properties of Soils, the go-to textbook for everything on soils, and a contributor to On Pasture. He was asking for input on electric fencing for a project he is starting in Ethiopia to introduce adaptive, multi-paddock grazing to communities that are currently over-grazing their landscape.
“Now you do not find a blade taller than half an inch anywhere in the landscape, either the fields or the field margins or the fence rows or the roadsides or the pastures,” he wrote. “Every blade of grass gets eaten before it grows more than half an inch tall. So setting up the exclusion would not be too difficult. But then I would want to divide it into 30 or 40 paddocks and start a demonstration rotation with a mixed flock of a few cows and maybe a half a dozen to a dozen sheep. We will also have to be able to fence paddocks from areas bordering crop fields.”
The challenge was that he needed to fit everything to enclose a 65 x 65 x 134 foot area into a large suitcase and a duffel bag when he headed back in July. I set him up with sheep expert Bill Fosher and with John Marble who helped him decide on starting out with electric netting.
He wrote me again before he headed out in July saying, “Given the limitations of the briefness of my stay there and the need to carry the supplies in our luggage (two people, two 42 inch duffles), I’m going to have to start small and keep it simple. Since they graze sheep with cattle and their animals are quite small compared to American cattle, I think that electric netting may be the best option, even if later on we changed to a triple wire for great flexibility. The netting is not so easy to move on a regular basis, but once you get the hang of how to fold it, it should be okay and it certainly is more foolproof than a couple of strands of wire. It also comes with its own step in stakes. Even with that, it’s going to take some training, no doubt, for me, the livestock, and the local people.”
Here’s what he had planned for this visit:
“I hope I can take maybe two 164-foot rolls of 3-foot high netting and a solar charger. I can get local posts for corners and use local construction rebar for grounding. The charger will have to have enough power so that I can make two small paddocks (41′ x 41′) to keep a couple of small cows and half a dozen sheep for a day. But with only 328 feet of fence to charge, the battery size should not be a problem.
“This will serve primarily as a demonstration so people in the community can see how the system works. Our first task – which I am hoping is now underway – is to use locally available barbed wire to create a 2-acre exclusion zone where the forages can grow to a good height before we divide the area into paddocks and start rotating into them. Since I won’t be there on a continuous basis it’s going to be hard to make this work. Theoretically, the grazing rotation could be managed without fencing, just using the children who now herd their family livestock in small groups. They can carefully graze the grassy field border without allowing the cattle to eat the young wheat plants. But I think the fencing will make it much more feasible – and let the kids go to school where they should be!”
Check out the 3:14 video below to see where Ray and his colleague Dr. Kate Tully will be working and to meet some of the people he’s working with. Ray said he’ll let us know how it goes and what he’s learning from his colleagues. So stay tuned!