Item for Smallfarmer feature

This is the first in what will be a regular monthly feature for lifestyle or small farm situations.

Having become the proud owners of a few acres, the next step is often “Oh we’ll run a few sheep”. Like most areas of life, things go better with good planning, and as farming has many uncontrollable variables (weather, government) it’s even more important to control the things we can forsee, to avoid heartbreak later on.

First work out how many sheep/cows/horses your available grazing area can support. As a very general rule, you can feed 1 horse, 2 cows or 10 sheep per 2 acres. This does not include their offspring, for which extra grass should be allowed. Start with fewer animals. It is very easy to add more, very hard to decide who should go if you run out of food. The amount of grass available varies at different times of the year, and so it is important to be able to restrict what the animals eat at some times, and to supply extra at others. Most grazing animals will eat as much as they can at any one time. They have absolutely no concept of “saving for a rainy day”! Unfortunately this can, and does, lead to animals starving in the late winter and early spring period, especially when they are pregnant. Ensuring an adequate and even food supply all year round is what the term “farming” actually involves. We need to anticipate the “rainy day” for our animals and have plans in place.

This leads to two other vital matters: buying or making hay in summer when there is surplus grass, and having good fences and enough paddocks so that areas of grass can be rested and regrow. Grass requires nutrients to grow well, and fertilizer is required at least once a year. Animals must be kept off fertilized areas for three weeks (or until it rains). The more paddocks you have, the better you will be able to control the grass growth, and the better the quality of that grass will be. Any given area of pasture will grow more grass if it is grazed down to about 1cm high, and then rested to regrow. If it is constantly grazed down to dirt, it will take a long time for the weakened grass plants to regrow when the ground is finally rested from grazing. Conversely, if the grass is allowed to get very long and go to seed, the food value of it decreases rapidly. Not all grass is created equal. Kikuyu is very poor food quality compared to ryegrass and clover. Horses and sheep can graze very short grass, but cows and goats require longer grass to eat.

Fencing is an investment that should last 20 years or more. It is worth getting someone who knows what they are doing (see advert this page). Electric fencing works well for cattle, goats and horses, but is no good for sheep, which have wool to insulate them. Electric fencing is not suitable for boundary fences. Fencing your grass area into a number of smaller “compartments” is very important for two reasons. Firstly, the grass can be better controlled as above. Secondly, you will be able to keep your animals under better control. For example, if the ram lives in with the ewes all year round, then lambs will be born all year round, and you will not know when to expect them! Young growing animals need more grass than adult animals, and so need to be provided more. When the grass grows slowly in winter, the animals can be restricted to one area and fed hay, while the other grass areas regrow to supply food for pregnant and lactating animals, which need twice as much as usual.

Each paddock needs to have a water supply. Cows can drink up to 100 litres per day each in summer. When planning your paddocks, or subdividing larger areas, give some consideration to shelter and shade. Young trees will need good protection from browsing for the first 5 years or so.

Along with good fences, a set of yards is essential if you are keeping sheep or cattle. Sheep especially require regular maintenance (more on this another time) and cattle are simply too big to hold down. The yards need not be elaborate, but should be well thought out so that getting your animals into them is not an endurance test. While vets are generally quite fit, they do not appreciate running marathons around your property to catch up with an errant beast. You may be able to use a neighbour’s yards, but do arrange this in advance, rather than waiting until you have a crisis.

Next month, a bit about vaccinations for livestock.