Goldfinch Gardens – Rotational Grazing with Sheep – WNC CRAFT Farm Tour – July 12, 2015
Goldfinch Gardens in Celo was our July WNC CRAFT Farm tour host! Ben McCann & Cedar Johnson were our knowledgeable host farmers and they taught us all about managing their sheep flock & rotational grazing.
Ben and Cedar began their farming career as interns in 2000, farmed for a few years in Massachusetts, before coming back to the Celo area to start Goldfinch Gardens in 2009. Vegetables were their main focus before venturing into livestock in 2013. After going to a few CRAFT farms that were raising pigs they ruled those out for their farm and started looking at sheep as an alternative. In order to help cover their start-up costs for this new enterprise, Ben & Cedar applied and were awarded a $6,000 grant from the WNC Ag Options program in 2014. They now lease a 13 acre field for grazing the sheep, and expanding vegetable production.
Ben explained that after much research they felt Katahdin sheep would suit Goldfinch Gardens best. Katahdin’s are well adapted to the southeastern climate, parasite resistant, bred for meat production only, and are hair sheep so they self-shed their wool. They started their flock with 15 ewes, 5 of which were pregnant. Slowly building their flock each year birthing new lambs, appeals to Ben & Cedar since the sheep are not their primary focus and they can grow their skills as the flock grows. It is their intention to keep a ‘closed flock’ which means they will not purchase or bring in any new sheep (except a ram for breeding purposes). Paired with aggressive culling each year, they hope to ensure a healthy flock that is adapted to their land and management practices. One lesson Ben & Cedar have come to know is that death and culling (selective slaughter) are a necessary part of the job. Some ewe (female) lambs will cycle out each year based on age, and birth efficiency and are culled for meat.
When they bought their initial herd Lulu the guard donkey came along, too. Donkey’s can be excellent guard animals because they can kill predators with their strong kick and are easy to care for since they eat the same thing as the sheep – grass! Predation and parasites are the biggest threat to any sheep flock. So with Lulu in action, the parasites are the next issue to tackle, and where rotational grazing comes in.
Rotational grazing is a huge benefit not only to the health of a sheep flock, but also to the health of your pastures. The principle behind rotational grazing is that a portion of land is grazed for a short amount of time, and then allowed to rest & recover for a period of time before the animals graze it again. This forces the animals to forage more uniformly, but allows desirable plants more time to regenerate and suppresses weeds. In our area the average resting time is 75 days – more in dry conditions, less in wet. This process also disrupts the life cycle of the parasitic worms that can live in the gut of the sheep. The worms crawl up the blades of grass waiting to be eaten by the sheep, but if the grass is longer, the worms aren’t able to climb high enough, or they hatch on pasture that is resting and die when they are not ingested by a sheep.
Ben and Cedar divided the 13 acre field into paddocks, and the sheep will graze each paddock 2-3 days before moving to the next. To rotate the sheep between the paddocks they use portable electric fencing. At first they used Premier 1 electric poultry netting, but found it to be labor intensive and limited their flexibility. The netting still comes in handy when they have small lambs, but for most of the summer 2-3 strands of electric polywire does the trick.
Three other important features to remember are your water source, shade, and a corral. For water, Ben rigged up a plastic cube on a small trailer that they can move with the tractor or truck that fills a bucket equipped with a standard tank float valve and can be moved with the sheep. He also built a shade structure that can be hauled from paddock to paddock. The corral was constructed with tractor panels. They lined the bottom with cattle panels so the sheep can’t slip under, and built a wooden head gate. Now they bring the herd in 1-2 times a season to clip their hooves, do health checks, and cull as needed.
After Ben explained their fencing practices we got to try our hand at setting up both the netting and poly wire strands, and then moved the sheep to fresh grass! After that we headed to Ben & Cedar’s home where they keep the sheep over winter and can be on hand to manage the lambing process. We followed it all up with a fantastic potluck on the porch!
A big CRAFT thank you to Ben and Cedar for such an informative and interactive farm tour. We always love visiting Goldfinch Gardens! Hope to see you next month!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2015! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join,click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.