Joshua and I originally got sheep to be lawnmowers. We have a lot of grass that we mow (Joshua mows!), so it made sense to put that grass to work. Enter sheep. (Not goats!) We started a rotational system to put our small space to good use.
At first we put the sheep in large areas and moved them every few days. We found that this led to big dead areas in the grass where they would lay to rest. We also struggled with how to provide shade. Finding something big enough to make good shade, light enough to be regularly moved, and yet sturdy enough to withstand scratching sheep and raging weather proved difficult.
Last summer, in a frustrated moment, we gave up on rotational grazing and just let the sheep out into the whole main pasture. That was a disaster. Between the spots they wore out laying down and their uneven grazing, they did a lot of damage to the pasture in just a couple of weeks.
Back to the drawing board.
We ended up using a rotational pattern with much smaller spaces than before. Basically, the sheep had to be moved every day. Setting up a new fence, taking down the old fence – it was a lot of daily labor. And it still didn’t solve the shade problem. Also, it turns out that pasture management involves a lot of mowing, so the original goal of mowing less was long forgotten. Joshua was mowing even more than before we got sheep!
Then winter happened, and the sheep moved into the pigless pig area for the winter, living off of hay instead of forage. It was nice to have them in one place over the winter. No fence moving, guaranteed protection from the weather, and I liked to sit nearby, watching them and chatting with them.
I was tempted to make a permanent enclosure for them and feed them hay year round. Hay is pretty cheap, and all those other issues would be addressed. Of course the downside of that is that then we’d have sheep who weren’t getting to eat pasture, which they obviously love and is the “right” thing for sheep.
When spring rolled around this year, we started back in with moving them to new area every day. But it quickly became apparent that even then they were wearing the place down. Would the forage last through summer? And what about that shade problem we had yet to fix? We sprung for a pop-up style shade structure that broke in mere days.
We were feeling frustrated and like failures at the whole sheep thing. We stuck the sheep back in the trees in a big fenced in area, gave them some hay, and decided to sell them. Fuck it.
Joshua was in the process of negotiating with someone about the sale of the sheep when I realized I was going to be really sad to see them go. I like them! They are awesome to be around! They are fascinating to watch! Buck, especially, has a personality that I would really miss, even though he’s also the most trouble.
The wooded area we had them in was seeming like a decent home. They had plenty of shade and also a sunny area. It was a big space that we wouldn’t mind being worn to dirt. The only problem was our desire to treat the sheep like sheep – it just wouldn’t be right to not give them access to pasture.
Then I had the idea of just letting them out onto the pasture a couple of times a day. They would get the fun (and some nutrition) of being on pasture. They wouldn’t wear it out as bad because they wouldn’t be laying down out there to rest. Rather than being their primary food, it would be more like a treat. We would get the benefit of not moving them every day – Letting them out and herding them back in is WAY easier than setting up a new fence every day. We wouldn’t have to worry about any of them dying from the heat. And the sheep would be in one location, making it more enjoyable for us to hang out with them.
Most importantly, we would get to keep our sheep!
So far, this plan is working. It’s unconventional, yes. It’s kind of like having pet sheep. They have a wooden area where they hang out most of the time eating hay, and sometimes they get to eat out in the pasture. They seem content, and the setup is working for me, too.
Just last week we sold John Doe, which means we’ve lost, freezered, or sold 7 lambs. Now we just have the same 3 adults we started with: Big Mama, Mary, and Buck. I’m so glad we kept them!