First Grass and Forward Plans

I put the sheep out on grass for the first time yesterday. The new spring grass is just starting to green up.

One “advantage” of my thin sour soil is that the juicy grass is so scanty I don’t have to worry much about the girls getting sick from an abrupt change in diet after a winter on dry hay. Simply to make sure they have a day’s fodder, I have to supplement with a few flakes of hay in their enclosure. Nevertheless the ewes were thrilled, tearing eagerly at the grass. The lambs were split between cavorting in the new space and tasting the yummy new food.

Now is the time when the lambs learn the routine of moving in a group, to follow the ewes at my heels as I shake a grain can and call, “Sheep! Sheep! Sheep!”  The first few moves are always chaotic as a lamb darts in the wrong direction and then wails frantically on the far side of the electric fence.

Now is also the time when I sort out my electronets (no matter how carefully I tie and store them they always seem to tangle themselves over the winter), mend any torn lines, and work on improvements to my summer sheep routine. I have several planned.

Betty’s field, where I graze my sheep from May through October, has no shade. Last year I had two homemade portable shade shelters that I moved with the flock. This worked perfectly for the sheep, but was tedious and time consuming for me, as each day’s move required me to open and close fences to get my truck inside the fencing to pull the shelters. (They are probably 175-200 lbs, just a little beyond my strength.) Getting the truck in while not letting the sheep out meant I always had to have two days’ worth of paddocks erected, so if a sheep got behind me it would not be loose. It also meant I had maneuver the truck in a very narrow space. More than once I accidentally hooked the electronet with a bumper.

Most of these problems would be solved with more shade shelters. Eventually I’d like to have six or even eight, but for now doubling my stock to four will seem like riches. The shelters are inexpensively built out of cattle panels, tarps, and skids. My friend Larry found me some used cattle panels for $10, less than half the price of new ones; I bought some treated 4x4s, so I’ll put together two more shelters this week.

The problem of pulling the shelters would be solved by a lawn tractor, which can tow the weight but is far more nimble than a truck in a tight space. A lawn tractor would also let me mow under my fence lines before setting my nets, keeping down the tall grass that lowers the fence charge, and let me mow any weeds left after the sheep passed through, perhaps eliminating the need to pay for a brush-hogging in late summer.

Last fall I asked Mike to keep an eye out for any used mower priced around $300. He found one being sold by a former school employee. Mark kindly agreed to let me pay for it over months, and now it’s mine. I’ll keep Mark’s “new” old mower at my farm and take my “old” old mower down to Betty’s for the summer.

Another issue I need to solve is that of water. Last year I carried water in 26-gallon open buckets from my farm. By the time I bounced up Betty’s field, my truck bed was always awash and half the water gone. My temporary solution was to carry more buckets. I do have a 375-gallon truck tank that was given to me for free (it was hit by a tractor and is gashed near the top) but it is so large and unwieldy that if I put it in my truck — always a struggle on my own — the truck bed is filled and essentially useless for any other purpose until fall. I’ve seen smaller water totes but new ones are expensive and used ones on Craigslist are inevitably too far away. I’ve asked everyone I know to be on the look-out for clean 55-gallon drums that I could lash to my stake rack. For now I’ll have to continue with the open buckets.

I also have wanted to improve the charge in my portable fences. 3000 volts will keep coyotes out but more voltage is safer. Mowing grass away from the lines will help, but the best thing is a good ground rod. Last fall I bought a thick, heavy, eight-foot long, stainless steel ground rod from the local electric company for $13. I’d like to cut it into two 3’6″ ground rods, welding the two extra pieces of 6″ steel across the tops in a T so I can pull the rods up  again as I move my fences. (It makes you feel humiliatingly stupid to be trying to yank a smooth rod hammered two feet deep in the ground when you have nothing to grab. Ask me how I know.) Allen’s son D. has told me where to find someone who welds stainless steel, but months later I’ve forgotten and will have to ask him again.

Yesterday, however, I just used the whole 8-foot rod. It looked very peculiar — pole vaulting, anyone? — but my plan definitely is going to work. 8000 volts on the fence! From my worn-out, last-summer battery! Yippee!

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