Our Pasture Management Plan & Planning Considerations for Your Farm
Woo hoo! Thanks to a generous grant through the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) Fellowship Fund, we now have the money needed to complete our fence projects for the expansion of the farm. Now it's time to get really busy with setting things up.
We've been thinking about our farm plan and layout for a while. We want to implement regenerative techniques where we move our animals on a frequent basis to fresh pasture. To do that we will use electric fencing to create temporary paddocks. The idea is to keep animals on fresh forage as much as possible while allowing previously grazed areas ample time to recover. This allows livestock the best nutrition possible while keeping their exposure to parasites (left behind in manure) to a minimum.
So here is a sketch of our plan.
We are very fortunate to have access to about 61 acres of land. Of course it's not a convenient shape to allow for a simple layout plan like you might find on Pinterest. There are 51 acres grouped together (depicted above), and they are connected to another 10 acres to the south via a narrow lane of land.
The property will be broken into 5 permanent paddocks of roughly 12-13 acres each using permanent wire fencing. We can run permanent electric wire along these interior fences and build our temporary paddocks from there.
Initially we plan to move livestock every 2 days to a new temporary paddock. These paddocks will be approximately 2-to-2.5 acres in size. We will start with keeping our animal populations below recommended stocking rates. As we become comfortable with the process and understanding what the land is capable of handling, we will adjust our stocking rate and implement daily moves to paddocks of 1-2 acres in size. We want grasses to have at least 50 days of rest between grazing periods.
One of our concerns with goats is that they perform better when they have shelter available. One option to ensure this is having a central corral area with a shelter where they bed down in the evenings. We would rather not do that because it will create heavy traffic areas along the paths they take to and from the corral, thus making those areas unusable for grazing. Alternatively, it is not financially feasible to have a shelter available in every single possible paddock, so a compromise is to build a shelter in each permanent paddock area and building lanes to the shelter using the temporary electric wire. We can also put the water source near the shelter so that we don't have to move water every day (or every other day). This still necessitates careful observation of the area to ensure animal traffic is not negatively affecting the grasses.
Here are the rules we have laid out for ourselves when it comes to planning our farm layout and flow of operations.
1. Define Your Goals.
The objective of your farm operation should define the requirements for how it runs. Those requirements in turn give you guideposts on how to plan your layout. Our objective is to use regenerative techniques with raising our livestock, so we needed to design a farm that allows us to do that effectively. Infrastructure for electric wiring and access to water became important to us in order to meet those goals.
2. Understand Your Context.
Noted regenerative farmer & rancher, Gabe Brown, emphasizes that to farm regeneratively you must understand the context of your situation and farm within it. How much vegetative growth can you expect in a normal rainfall year? Do you have access to water? How much land do you have for grazing? We can't carbon copy what Joel Salatin does in Virginia due to the different climates, but as long as we stay within our context we can emulate those processes. Likewise, we cannot expect to raise 100 head of cattle on our land as we simply lack the space. If you are limited to a smaller piece of land then your context will help define what sort of animals or crops you can raise.
3. Understand the Terrain.
As eluded to earlier, real life farms normally don't look like the colorful sketches we see on Pinterest. Those plans are great for giving us ideas to work with, but the land itself rarely allows for simple plans. Consider the terrain. Where does the water flow? Are there low areas? For us we would love to put a corral in the geographic center of the property, but that's where water flows and creates an occasional wash, thus making it far too mucky for a permanent corral. What's the vegetation like? There's a sliver of our property that is what we call a flint-rock hill - there's no appreciable amount of soil and it's covered in thick black brush. It would be pointless to clear that brush from the hill as it would only leave behind exposed rock and would not produce enough grass to justify the cost of clearing it in the first place. We will leave it as is, but once cattle are brought into that area we have to adjust the paddock size to account for this brushy location that provides them little nutritional value. Side note - goats love black brush, and this will be a great spot for them when they rotate through.
4. Understand the Obstacles, Barriers, and Access Points.
Similar to terrain, you will have to contend with obstacles and barriers of the man-made variety. Are there fences, barns, and corrals already in place? Where are the gates? Are you building a home on the property, and if so where and how will it affect the flow of farm operations? Where do you have access to electricity and the local water system?
5. Go Slow on Building Permanent Structures and Infrastructure.
Don't rush in too fast to build structures. If you can afford time to get a good feel for the land, it will allow you the opportunity to observe and see where things should be placed most effectively. In addition to the FVC grant, we have also secured some funding through NRCS EQIP to help pay for cross-fencing. While we plan to have the main 51 acres broken into 4 permanent paddocks, we are only building one cross-fence initially that will more or less split the property in half. We will evaluate the flow of our operations and assess if our long-term plan for 4 paddocks still makes sense. And thinking back to #3 above, understanding the terrain allows you better plan where to put your permanent structures.
6. Define Your Shelter and Water Requirements.
If raising livestock you need to understand your animals' shelter requirements and how they will get water. This builds off many of the previous points. Understanding the lay of the land, defining your goals, knowing where you access water, and being diligent in constructing permanent structures all come in to play here. Will you use a pond or tap into a water supply? Will you pump water out to the animals' paddocks or will they travel to a central point? Do you need shelter for the animals, and what kind? Don't think about shelter necessarily as just keeping your livestock out of the rain but also a source of shade if you don't have trees that provide it already.
7. Temporary Paddock Plans are TEMPORARY.
If you are pursuing regenerative farming methods, don't allow yourself to get in the trap of laying out a permanent paddock plan. If you are using temporary paddocks you are essentially implementing what is called Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing. In AMP you can expect intensive grazing on a small piece of land for a short period of time before the herd is moved on to the next available piece of land. By definition AMP moves are not scheduled and not set to defined areas. The animals are moved in response to how the land is performing. Yes, have a plan, but let the how the performance of the land and the animals dictate your next move, not a rigid paddock plan.
Read about different types of paddock designs here.
By definition AMP moves are not scheduled and not set to defined areas. The animals are moved in response to how the land is performing.
8. Adjust Your Plan.
Speaking of rigid plans... You've probably heard the old military saying: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. There's little difference in farming. The enemy is the weather, predators, broken equipment, sick animals, and so on. That doesn't mean don't plan, but plan with flexibility in mind. Things will never go perfectly, and from gaining experience along the way you will come up with ideas to make your farm operation perform better.
Plan carefully. Leave room for flexibility and to change the plan later. That's basically our approach, and we think it will work for you as well when you design your small farm or homestead. What about you? What lessons have you learned in planning out your farm?