WISCONSIN DELLS — Anna and Keith Johnson have been grazing sheep for a few years in “corn and soybean country” near Gibson, Minn. With few pastures around, their operation stands out — its former cornfields replaced by pasture they planted themselves for the approximately 100 ewes they rotationally graze.
Many farmers can likely relate to the couple, who always seem to have more questions than answers on their farm. They often wondered why average daily gains for their ewes and lambs tended to fall off during the summer months, particularly after Aug. 15, which led them to apply for a Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study how different pasture types impact those average daily gains.
They shared the results of their two-year research project at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference Feb. 1, offering their observations and the pros and cons of each pasture type they studied.
The Johnsons divided their flock into four separate groups, splitting them between four different pasture types on their farm: a diverse annual pasture, a non-lignifying pasture, a self-harvested grain pasture and a perennial pasture, which served as the control.
The diverse annual pasture had about 20 different plants in it, a combination of grasses, legumes, brassicas and other forbs, with Anna observing that it contained a lot of peas and oats and Keith noting that the presence of different plants changed as the season went on. They planted this pasture May 7, but advised attendees that it could have been planted earlier; this pasture type would need to be replanted each year.
The non-lignifying pasture contained a lot of chicory and plantain, Anna said, although a few forbs, legumes and fairly minimal grasses were also planted and observed. This pasture type would not need to be replanted each year.
The self-harvested grain pasture included a mix of alfalfa, grasses and a strip of oats. Ewes can be trained to eat grains, and will teach their lambs to eat grains too, Anna said, but too much grain can result in a protein deficiency. The alfalfa could be planted every three to five years, while the oats would need to be replanted each year.
The control pasture featured grasses, legumes, forbs and a bit of chicory, and has a lifespan of 10 years. However, some people have said to never replant a perennial pasture as they should only get better with time, Anna said.
The Johnsons found that they were able to graze the diverse annual pasture twice each year, once with the ewes and another time with the ewes and their lambs. They recorded very good average daily gains and found other pros for this pasture type as well, including a pretty good regrowth for late-season grazing. They concluded that this type of pasture could be added to a corn/soybean crop rotation and Keith found the meat was very flavorful; Anna teased that the pasture made a decent salad early in the season too.
However, they realized this pasture type would need to be replanted each year, right around lambing time, which may not be ideal for some sheep producers. And once it gets growing, it can be difficult to move temporary fencing through it.
The non-lignifying pasture also saw pretty good average daily gains, Anna said, adding that they also observed less parasite pressure in lambs the second year with this pasture type. The Johnsons were able to graze this pasture only once the first year, as it was an establishment year, but were able to graze it twice the second year, just like the diverse annual pasture. This pasture type does not need to be replanted each year and includes lots of flowers for pollinators, which can be an advantage to those concerned about pollinator habitat.
But the Johnsons found that this pasture type can have the potential for winter kill and the baling of chicory is not recommended.
The third pasture type, the self-harvested grain pasture, also recorded very good average daily gains, and served as an easy way to feed homegrown grains to the animals without the requirement of on-farm storage.
But the Johnsons found cons in having to replant the oats each year, and noted it was difficult to time the cuttings with the oats, which resulted in quite a bit of trial and error. They also didn’t collect much data the first year as it was an establishing year for the pasture, and only grazed it once the following year after waiting for the oats to produce grain.
The control pasture had a high profit per acre and the Johnsons liked not having to plant it each year. They also easily took four to five cuttings off of that pasture.
When asked what their ideal forage chain for their operation would be after reviewing the results, the Johnsons decided perennial pasture for May and June, the non-lignifying pasture for July and August, and possible turnips for September and October. They have applied for another grant to study pasture types in September and October, and hope to continue their on-farm research through Minnesota’s sustainable agriculture demonstration grant program.
“Think about your whole farm picture when deciding on a pasture type,” Anna said. “And keep overall goals for your farm in mind. Everyone’s farm is different.”