Won’t you come along with me?
Where we are is standing at the north end of the driveway at 1581 F Avenue, Dwight, Kansas, and if you have a service that permits you to see aerial photographs, you can see what it looks like from above. It will be a summer view, of course, and our photos were taken at the end of October. Either way, you will note that the driveway is a quarter mile long; you might have thought that immigrants from Sweden would have sited their house along the road—but apparently mud on the prairie in the mid 1870s was not a deterrent.
Looking to the east you see a field once farmed replanted to diverse native grass species. It will have more than five species and is called “bluestem” after the dominant species, big bluestem; others of the mix are little bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, western wheatgrass, buffalo grass, and Virginia wild rye. It requires no fertilizer, and if put up into hay in mid-July, it will yield maybe 3/4s of a ton per acre. This year, ending with a wet September, it produced 2.2 tons an acre, 44 1,100 pound bales off some eleven acres. It was not chemically fertilized, but in February, March, and April, our flock was pastured there, working on the Spring growth and alfalfa spread out daily at about 1.5 pounds per head.
In the second photo you see the pasture/hay meadow that lies along the driveway across the draw from the first field. It has not been pastured since April and obviously it was not mowed. The taller grasses—with sort of a paintbrush seed head—are Indian grass.
These two fields will be rotated as pastures this winter, spreading alfalfa variously and diversely as we did last year. Sheep will look for the alfalfa each morning, maybe two pounds a day per head, and then work on anything green that has reappeared. In their night pen they will find prairie hay in large bales every night, because it doesn’t do to let sheep get hungry. You will understand that each sheep becomes its own manure spreader. This year we sowed oats with our newly planted alfalfa, as a nurse crop. The oats thrived but because of a wet July we couldn’t harvest them as oats. So after they had turned into oat straw—with some grain still attached—and it was mowed, together with the young alfalfa, it became a wonderful feed: Very Popular. Especially in the night pen.
In the third photo we have moved west off the driveway onto a hay meadow, unfenced and therefore necessarily ungrazed, which produced 44 bales of bluestem off 20 acres, mowed at roughly the same time as the eleven acre field. Perhaps you can pick up from the different colors of the now mostly dormant grass plants which ones are western wheatgrass, a cool season grass now bright green. Once this field was farm ground—note the terraces which help the water walk off, not run off. In the distance you see the pasture occupied by sheep which is seen up close in photo 4—with Fife who likes attention whether there’s a camera or not. We mowed the fourth field after it had been grazed in separate periods all summer in order to make it uniform for winter pasturage. After breeding season is finished, perhaps we will try the alfalfa regime here also.
All these variations are possible because of the fencing and dogs required to keep the flock intact and safe, so that once they are in place we can think about the possibilities we have available for nutrition.
And yes, besides all that: it’s beautiful.
Copyright Jerry Wigglesworth, 2016