Sunday, August 12, 2007

Gardening With Sheep

Sometimes the sheep are SUPPOSED to be in the garden.

With difficult weather early in the season, and changing levels of commitment among my volunteer apprentices, several parts of the garden have gotten out of control. And some areas were planned to be fallow from the beginning.

"Flash grazing" with temporary electric netting is remarkably effective, esp. where a good early mulch layer resulted in just a few weeds that have gotten enormous, giving the appearance of an uncontrollable mess while in fact under the lush top growth there isn'tthat big a problem.

These photos, taken by volunteer apprentince MR, show the fence and fallow area just before letting the sheep in, just after, and one hour later. The closeup shows three lambs (about 6 months old, average 75 lbs.) about to graze a clump of Johnson grass down to the ground.
In some states Johnson grass is recommended as a pasture grass; however, in Kansas it is a State noxious weed, and failure to control it can result in stiff fines. It grows easily 10' tall, looks like a delicate sort of broomcorn (to which it is related), and is persistently perrennial. Picture GIANT bermudagrass, with rampantly spreading rhizomes 3/4" thick and running a foot or more under the ground. My control program includes preventing it from setting seeds, keeping it grazed or mowed as much as possible, and very careful, thorough digging of the rhizomes to eradicate it clump by clump.

Happy sheep, happy gardener!

OK, the certified organic people would have a cow because raw manure is being "applied" directly to the garden area without the recommended composting and lengthy (6-month) "waiting period." Here's my take on that:

  • Just how ARE the certified organic people ensuring that the rabbits & birds don't poop in the vegetable garden? A few sheep for a few hours when there is no crop in the ground seems about on par with the frolicing rabbits and fluttering birds.

  • I don't graze the sheep on crops that are yet to be harvested, other than root crops in the ground like potatoes and onions for home use. So they aren't pooping directly on the lettuce or anything that's going to market.

  • Sheep poop isn't sloppy like some manures. And unlike many manures, it doesn't cause nitrogen burn, so from the plants' point of view it's safe.

  • Rain doesn't splash off the mulched soil surface like it would on an open soil, so it's less likely to spread bacteria from the soil to the plant leaves.

  • I suspect that my extremely biologically active soil rapidly deals with alien microbes.

  • For that matter, my soil probably has more microbes--in a vibrant, healthy balance--than finished compost, because my soil is constantly in the process of composting the hay mulch.

  • Chances of my sheep being infected with one of the really nasty strains of bacteria are minimal, given that they've never been off the farm and haven't had contact with any off-farm animals or, heaven forbid, animal byproducts in feed. If their ancesters were ever in a confinement-type environment, it was dozens of generations ago.

  • I'm meticulous in harvesting and handling my greens to ensure no soil contacts them during these processes. I can be more thorough about this than larger growers because I do it on a small scale.

If people are concerned about food safety because they have compromised immune systems, I won't feel offended if they take their business elsewhere. But they will probably not really be getting safer food by doing so.

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