I am not fond of doing things “Arse” backwards, but sometimes life unfolds that way. I purchased my two ewes, (mother and daughter Shetlands, hereafter referred to as “the Girls”), because they needed a home. I wanted sheep, so it seemed like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I had no place for them and had to do some fast and fancy talking to convince my friends, Gus and Jan, that by my lending them my sheep, they could decide if shepherding was how they wanted to use their pasture.
Although we live only eight miles apart, driving to care for the sheep on dark, raining winter nights felt like double the miles. I was anxious to move the girls to our property where we live, but first we had to purchase land. Once we bought it, I needed to put it into pasture.
Early last fall, we acquired the land and cleared it for pasture. Since I make my living by advising people how to grow turf for lawns and sports fields, I figured putting in a pasture would be easy. The only difference between the two is grass grown for lawns and sports is a cover crop while pasture grass provides food for grazing animals. So I thought.
Not knowing much about pasture grass, I turned to the Internet. It was soon apparent the web sites I found were dealing with large sheep operations. All I wanted was to have the girls near me. I wasn’t into stocking rates or even herbage mass and anyone who calls their sheep, “the girls”, doesn’t want to know anything about meat production either.
Wool is another story. The girls provide me with enough wool to keep me spinning for a year. Quality wool is the result of quality feed. Palatability is a factor in determining how much they eat. After all, I feel the same way. Give me food that I like, I gobble it.
My first concern was type of seed. Most cool season grasses are made up of perennial ryes, fescues and Kentucky blue grass. Kentucky blue grass, in my area, does not survive long, so we grow mostly perennial rye grass and fescues. Many cultivars (varieties) of perennial rye and fescue have endophytes (a fungus) bred into them. These endophytes are beneficial in turf because they make the grass plant more resistant to insects and help the plant survive under stress. However, they can cause serious problems if they are used for pasture grass. Sheep or any grazing animal can develop “staggers”, (a condition causing convulsions, even death) when they eat grass containing endophytes.
I needed grass developed for pastures. The challenge was to find a mix suitable for the girls. I chose one called, “All Purpose” which contained a variety of grasses including tall fescue, orchard grass, perennial rye and annual rye, none of which were endophyte enhanced, so they’re safe for grazing.
Diploid vs. Tetraploid?
When my supplier asked me if I wanted diploid or tetraploid rye grass, I thought he’d reverted to another language. He explained that tetraploid rye grass has higher palatability than diploids, meaning they taste better. If I were raising sheep for market, greater palatability would mean greater intake and higher animal production. Tetraploids are also more resistant to a disease called crown rust. As I don’t use pesticides around my animals, this was important to me.
Tetraploid rye grass, however, doesn’t stand up to heavy grazing and its growth habit is more open than diploids. This allows for greater weed infestation. I decided to cover all my bases by using a mix of both tetraploid and diploid rye grass taking advantage of each of their strengths.
How Much To Plant
I told my supplier I wanted three hundred fifty pounds of pasture seed, an amount I would normally use to seed an acre of lawn. He looked at me quizzically, “How many acres are you seeding?” “One” I answered. He laughed. Handing me a 25-pound sack of seed, he said, “Here’s all you’ll need.” “You sure?” “Yup!”
I compromised. I bought twenty-five pounds to seed the pasture and another twenty-five pounds to over-seed, just in case. I couldn’t help myself. Old habits die slowly. Later I learned the recommended seeding rate allows individual grass plants to develop fully, something they can’t do when in competition in a lawn.
In addition, it is okay for other plants to grow in the pasture. Were these in my lawn, I’d call them weeds. In the pasture, it’s variety. I also decided to add White Dutch Clover (one pound per acre). Clover provides nitrogen to the soil because it takes it from the air. It also has more protein content than grass. This means less fertilizer and it is good for the girls. Using a variety of grasses, (monocots), clovers, and forbs, (dicots) means prolonged grazing time.
Soil Prep & Aftercare
Before I seeded, I prepared the soil based on results from a sample I sent to a lab for analysis. Better to make corrections before seeding than trying to correct the soil afterwards. It is also an inexpensive way to make sure no nutrients are deficient. My soil is acid, so I incorporated calcium carbonate into the soil before planting (20 pounds per thousand square feet). I’ll continue to lime on a yearly basis to improve the pH.
After germination, I fertilized with a 16-16-16 with slow release nitrogen. It’s more expensive than a quick release fertilizer, but it will last longer giving a good foundation to the pasture. I’ll continue to fertilize regularly in the spring and fall when top growth is the greatest. Nitrogen will increase the yield of the pasture grass, thickening the stand and improving the protein content of the grass.
Establishing a pasture correctly saves time and money. It provides good nutrition for sheep much earlier in the spring and later into the fall. This, in turn, means having to buy less feed. If you have only two sheep as I do, cost may not matter, but to my friends, Gus and Jan, it’s important. Realizing they loved having sheep in their pasture, they now have five. Recently Jan made me promise I wouldn’t let her buy any more sheep. How can I? After all, I’m just getting started myself.