While barns are important on any farm, keeping animals on pasture is almost always the better option. Pasture raised animals are usually much healthier and the meat and other animal based food products they offer come with much more nutrients when those animals are raised in a natural setting.
From a humanist and ethical standpoint, animals that are allowed to live outside for the majority of their lives are much happier and live healthier lives. Instead of being pent up in tiny pens, they are allowed to roam and forage for their own food and create their own natural defenses instead of being pumped full of antibiotics and other medicines.
From a practical standpoint, a well-maintained pasture design allows us to take advantage of the innate tendencies that animals have to graze, forage, scratch, or root the land below them. Of course, animal manure spread out over the landscape is also an important source of nutrients for the land itself, reincorporating fertility to the land while improving overall soil quality in a natural process.
Unfortunately, overgrazing of the land has been the main cause of much land degradation over the years. This has mostly been due to keeping way too many animals on a small patch of land and also because of a lack of proper maintenance of pasture land. Rotating your farm animals through a carefully designed system of paddocks is one of the best strategies to sustainably maintain pasture while also offering your animals some of the best grazing land available.
Paddocks are simply fenced off portions of your pasture land. To set up a successful grazing rotation, it´s usually best to begin with cattle on one piece of land. Since cattle prefer the higher, greener parts of grass, they will leave the parts of the grass closer to the roots as long as there are other options. Once the cattle have eaten all of the green grasses, you move or rotate them on to another paddock while you bring sheep or chickens on to the paddock the cows left. Sheep prefer the parts of grasses closer to the roots while the shorter grass will make it easier for chickens to forage for bugs, seeds, and other edibles.
After the sheep and chickens have moved off of that paddock, it´s good to let us sit fallow for several days or weeks until it recovers to its initial state when you can move the cows back on. The amount and size of your paddocks will depend on the size of your overall pasture, how many animals you have and what types of animals you choose to graze. This rotational system of pasturing animals allows for a natural regeneration of the fields while avoiding the erosion and other negative ecological consequences that come from overgrazing animals on one piece of land. Over time, the pastures will become more resilient and vibrant due to the natural grazing patterns of the animals.
If you don´t want to spend a lot of money setting up permanent fencing for a rotational pasture system, electronet fencing is a fantastic option. Electronet fencing is movable rope or plastic netting with small metal wires running throughout the netting. It can easily be charged with a small solar power charger and is an extremely effective way of moving small livestock throughout your land while also protecting them from predators.
The electric shock is strong enough to deter even the most stubborn animals (think goats) from trying to roam free while not strong enough to cause any serious harm. It also is a good way to teach the possums and foxes to leave your chickens alone.
One great way to use your electronet fencing is to fence around a series of garden beds that have already been harvested. Releasing a flock of chickens onto these finished garden beds is an efficient way to get rid of excess produce and plant waste. The chickens will also scratch up your beds and fertilize them leaving them ready for you to plant the next crop. The same technique can be used to “mow under” cover crops. If, for example, you have planted a cover crop of alfalfa or buckwheat on a piece of land that needed excess nutrition, chickens, sheep or other small animals caged in by electronet fencing can forage over that piece of land, effectively mowing under your cover crop and preparing the land for the next crop.
While many people believe that the forestry and grazing animals don´t go together, silvopasture is an agroforestry technique that combines livestock with forests. Cows originated in a savannah ecosystem which was often dotted with significant amounts of trees and small forests. Trees offer cattle or other livestock a protection from the wind, the sun, and other elements.
Planting fast growing leguminous trees such as alder, black locust or others throughout your pasture is a way to get double production from one piece of land. You could plant trees for firewood or even certain fruit and nut tree species as well. If you are planning to raise goats, you will need to protect those trees from their foraging habits with some sort of fencing or other option.
Silvopasture is an important technique for anyone raising animals on pasture. It helps to offset the carbon footprint that livestock has on the planet through the emission of methane gas. It also offers you another product from the same piece of land while not affecting the quality of pasture.
The Purpose of Sheep and Goats to the Small Mayan Farmer
From a western perspective, the main goal of raising animals is for meat production. However, for thousands of small farmers in the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala, sheep, and goats are raised on communal pastureland not so much for their meat, but for their manure. The Mayan people are the people of the corn and their entire diet has been built around the cultivation of corn. Corn, however, is an extremely nutrient heavy crop that pulls large amounts of nutrients from the land. Without a way to return those nutrients to the land, repeated corn harvests would quickly deplete the soil of its natural fertility.
Mayan farmers, then, have developed a goat and sheep raising technique that takes advantage of the abundant communal pasture lands that they collectively manage. Every night, children gather up the herds and corral them into raised pens. The floors of these raised pens are made from thin wood boards that are slightly separated allowing the sheep and goat manure and urine to pass through the floor and into a tank that is built below the pen.
Worms are then introduced into the continually growing pile of sheep and goat excrement to help speed up decomposition and add extra nutrition through worm castings. After the corn harvest, this abundant supply of fertility is then spread over the land to replenish the fertility that the corn took from the land.