Homesteading with sheep takes on many faces, each way individual to the homestead preferences and needs. Since grass-fed meat is our preference that means maintaining sheep on pasture on a small scale. Doing this however requires intensive grazing management and proper rotation of the pastures to prevent overgrazing that leads to land degradation, including “weeds”, soil compaction and erosion. This leads us to manage the pasturing sheep closely.
Considerations for Pasturing Sheep
Even though maintaining pastures requires a lot of decisions almost daily, it’s a relatively simple system with some basic rules.
Don’t have too large a carrying capacity
Match your animal to your needs AND the land
Rotate grazing areas to give the land rest (ie: don’t overgraze)
The most important thing to pay attention to is something called carrying capacity. It’s a term many ranchers use to talk about how many cattle or similar grazing animals can be maintained indefinitely on a specific sized piece of property, without damaging the property and usually without outside inputs. Depending on the situation, that number may or may not include purchased supplemental feed. Our goal is to use the sheep to improve their own pasture to the point they will not need seasonal supplemental feed.
Aside from legal numbers assigned to specific locations, the enforcement of this number is highly variable. Carrying capacity will vary with the land health and quality of pasture, the land size, your climate, the weather of the season, if you are maintaining breeding stock, raising young, and more.
Choosing the Right Animals for Pasture
Another decision is to choose the animals that most benefit you: goats, sheep, llamas, pigs, cattle, bison, game birds, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, etc. And then compare that list to what is suitable for the land. Since we don’t have much land, bison are obviously out of the question! Considering this we chose a smaller animal who served multiple purposes for us, blackbelly sheep.
Finally, the hardest part is determining the pasture rotation so you can give the land adequate time to rest. Most sources suggest a minimum rest period of 14 days, moving the animals daily or even twice a day, like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. We do not have the land for that, so my management requires daily analysis to determine when to move the sheep to a new pasture. Generally, that means changing paddocks somewhere between 5 and 15 days for a herd of 5 adults. This management is required for pasturing our sheep sustainably.
Note that this is still a very delicate balance and can easily lead to overgrazing on our unimproved pastures, especially in a semi-arid subtropical climate. However even that overgrazing, managed properly, can eliminate invasive grasses and wear the pasture to bare soil which opens up the opportunity to reseed native grasses in their place. We do not use irrigation systems for our property. This makes the balance even harder, as a drought can wipe out all available pasture forage!