Story & photos by Stuart Chutter
Spring started out as usual here on the farm. Lambing in May was chaotic and exhausting, but that is normal. But normal stopped when it never rained. I was rotating pastures faster than ever before because the growth was so slow. It didn’t take long to realize that there wasn’t going to be enough grass this year, and I would run out of forage long before winter. With hay crops devastated and hay selling at over $200 per tonne, early feeding was not a solution. Early marketing of lambs, destocking or finding more grass were the only possible answers.
Normally our ewes and lambs graze together with the goat herd until weaning in mid-August. But with so little rain and poor growth of grass, things had to be different this year. After weaning in July, the lambs were sent back out to graze barley and oat greenfeed regrowth on the farm. Meanwhile, the does, ewes and I took a six-hour truck ride to southeast Saskatchewan to graze leafy spurge, an invasive weed taking over prairie grasslands, This was a last-minute opportunity for which I was not well prepared. It was out of pure necessity and naivety that I ended up with over 1,000 breeding ewes and 540 does grazing weeds off-farm, to help sustain the herd until winter. We would graze there from early July to mid-October.
The first three weeks were a total adventure. I arrived in my pick-up with a quad in the box, pulling a tent trailer. The semis were right behind me! We drove farther into the bush than I had expected, until we arrived at the unloading ramp. Before I had much time to plan, set camp or get myself organized, the trucks were unloaded and I was off herding with a map in hand and only a vague idea of where I was.
The goats arrived first, a few weeks before the sheep, as they had been weaned and processed first. The sheep started rolling in later, after they had been weaned, sorted, wormed, footbathed and loaded from home.
For most of the summer the sheep and goats were grazed separately. They were penned nightly in separate small holding pens made of electric netting energized by solar panels. The goats took longer to learn respect for electric netting, so keeping them separate allowed a closer eye on their night pen. The night pens were moved every other day or so, and my camp more or less weekly, so that fresh grass was close at all times.
Each morning, we left early to find spurge to graze. In the hottest part of summer I would often pen the sheep during the heat of the day, when they would bed down anyway, and go for a lunch break. But later in the summer, as days got shorter and cooler, it was often easier to just graze all day. I used the quad all the time. I couldn’t have survived without it! I used it to take animals to and from camp, as well as to bunch the animals up as needed (and also to explore a little and see, “What’s over there?”).
For me, the purpose of taking this drastic step was to feed my sheep. But for the landowner, the purpose of having me and my animals there was to control leafy spurge. It was obvious that this weed was taking over the land and, outside of the boundari
es where sheep had been grazing for several years, it was out of control. When the sheep finished eating through a plot of thick, tall spurge, the soil underneath was nearly completely bare, with no grass or native species under the canopy of spurge. Looking at the fence lines of the land I was grazing, and where sheep have been for several years, the benefit of sheep grazing was obvious. Inside the fence, the spurge looked like a managed problem, but the area outside was full of wild and uncontrolled spurge growth.
Over the course of the summer there were many adventures and near disasters. I awoke one night to the sound of noisy sheep. Settled sheep are relatively silent; noisy sheep mean trouble. On this night, some of the netting had been knocked down and the whole flock had escaped. After herding all day I was not impressed to be herding at night as well, but after about two hours I had most of them collected and back in their pen, and I was back in bed. The next morning there was a bunch of sheep waiting outside the pen that I must have missed in the darkness.
Another near disaster occurred while pushing sheep down a trail late in the evening. The days were getting shorter and I had stayed out grazing too long. I was hurrying to get the flock back to the night pen before dark. In my panic, I lost one of my collies. Duke was with me one minute and gone the next. I mistakenly assumed he would find us back at camp, so I kept pushing the sheep. Luckily, I got everyone penned before dark; but there was no sign of Duke. I spent the better part of the next week knocking on nearby farm doors and putting up missing dog signs, in between herding shifts. I had nearly lost hope when Duke was found, miles away, deep in a valley, by a recreational dirt biker who had seen one of my signs. I was thrilled to have him back at camp, and so was Lexi (my other collie), who was exhausted from doing double duty for the week that he was missing.
The biggest recurring problem I had was flat tires on the quad. My poor quad was abused all summer; in hindsight I should have had a backup quad with me. I had flat tires at least weekly and became a quick pro at sealing leaks. I bought new tires by midsummer but even these were full of plugs by fall. It may be more dependable to herd on horseback but I was not nearly organized enough to try that this summer. As much of a headache as the tires were, at least the quad didn’t require feed or rest, and didn’t create extra chores in addition to herding.
The sheep and goats performed reasonably well while grazing. There were no young stock out with me, just dry females needing to meet their maintenance requirements. The ewes arrived thin, as they had just weaned their lambs, and they were relatively fleshy by the time they left in the fall. The goats did wonderfully on all the browse and bush, and I have never had such nice condition on my does heading into winter. It was very obvious over the summer that goats really were made for grazing projects involving eating bush and weeds. Lameness was the biggest animal health problem.
With eight guard dogs, constant supervision and night penning, predation was not an issue.
I had never considered the old farm house I live in to be very luxurious, until I spent the summer herding. For most of the summer, a provincial park 20 minutes away was open, and I could sneak in on a side trail for a quick shower. But in mid-September the park closed and I was left to bathe in a small pail of water warmed on a propane stove. It is surprising how clean you can get from a sponge bath with a litre of water—it makes showering seem so wasteful!
Groceries were available 25 minutes away in a small town. But buying food was much more strategic than normal grocery shopping. Prospective purchases had to be easy to prepare and preferably non-refrigerated, as I only had a cooler with an ice pack. Milk had to be drunk quickly. On one of my first grocery trips, without much planning, I bought a box of fudgesicles and had to eat all six on the truck ride home. Avocados, canned tuna, apples, bananas and bulk granola bars quickly became staples. I also figured out that you can cook a can of soup over a stove without even putting it in a pot—other than a spoon, no dishes required!
Laundry was available at a laundromat in town. But, in all honesty, as summer turned to fall, laundry became less and less of a priority. It only takes so long living in a tent trailer before you just become dirty and tired. The sheep were getting tired too. Nights were colder and I was getting irritable and a little crazy from too long in the bush…it was time to go home!
All in all, my summer grazing was an adventure and experience I really learned from. Before this summer, if I had to move sheep across the road or across the neighbour’s land, I would have recruited lots of help at corners and gates. But now I am comfortable with sheep behaviour and handling large groups, and can move sheep on my own nearly anywhere. That being said, the grazing took a ton of time and there is no such thing as a balanced life when herding, so it is not something I’d look to do again on my own. If I have to do it again, it will be with relief help, better equipment, and more planning!
Hopefully next spring it will rain, so the sheep and I can just stay put and appreciate the comforts of home.
Stuart Chutter is a commercial lamb and meat goat producer living near Gull Lake, Saskatchewan.