Alpaca Articles : Pastures

THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS OF HOME

Getting the Most Out of Your Pasture - The Voisin Way

I don't know about you, but where we live, in the Northwest, land is expensive - and good pasture and grazing land is at a premium. We felt we had to come up with an innovative and economical way of optimizing our limited pastureland.

In researching pasture management, we discovered that the vast majority of North America's grazing land, including ours, is a neglected resource, producing far below their potential. We came to the studied conclusion that field renovation wasn't necessary. Grazing management of the pasture must be changed first, not last. Nothing else may be needed.

Over a period of the last six years, we have evolved to using a system of rotating our animals through paddocks on our 4 acres of main pasture - a system based on the Voisin grazing method. Last year was our first year with the required fencing completed and gates in place - and the benefits became as obvious as night and day. Most noticably, the pasture was greener and more lush - requiring far less irrigation in midsummer - and an amazingly short post-grazing recovery; we were able to reduce drastically the amount of hay our 28 females and offspring required; and weeds, which at times seemed to be the main crop in our pasture, have been noticably more scarce. Less obviously, our worming regimen has been reduced from four per year to two last year.

What is the secret of this metamorphosis? In a nutshell, the Voisin method - which requires intense grazing of a very small area for a very short time - with at least a month recuperation before putting the animals back into the same paddock. The ideal fencing for making this system work is electric - although, I'm sure other fences would work, but with lesser degrees of cost/efficiency.

Andre Voisin, a French farmer, biologist and chemist - as well as a teacher at the Institute of Veterinary Medicine in Paris, designed a system that he calls "rational grazing" (as opposed to the generic term "rotational grazing"). Rational grazing takes into account the needs of the animal and plant, rather than the animal alone. The term "rational grazing" can mean two things: the thinking way of grazing management, or a system for rationing out the forage.

Many farmers pride themselves on their pasture management. Usually such farmers divide their pastures into two, three or four parcels - only to find their animals run out of pasture forage in July or August. Understandably, these people gradually question the value of what they deem rotational grazing--without coming to an understanding of the three key concepts of Voisin's rational grazing: the requirement of putting a large number of animals in a small space; the need to increase the rest period between grazings as plant growth slows with the progression of the season; and the necessity to severely limit the period that animals graze a paddock at any one time. Voisin's system interferes as little as possible with the pasture ecosystem, while gently guiding it to benefit the farmer, and protecting it from damage by grazing animals. It is a simple system that in essence just gives pasture plants a chance to photosynthesize and replenish food reserves.

How did we put these concepts into practice? Our situation is this: we have a centrally located barn with about 4 acres of pasture around it. Surrounding the entire pasture are six strands of high tension Kiwi electric fencing spread to a height of 44 inches. We have divided the pasture into 16 pie-shaped paddocks, using three strands of electrical polytape or polywire, on cheap plastic step-in posts. Each (approximately) quarter-acre paddock narrows at the barn with a gate which opens to the barn and a wrap-around concrete sidewalk (see diagram). The 6' wide gates are all lined up in a row parallel to and 6' away from the barn with the sidewalk in between. We allow the girls full access to the back half of the barn by keeping open only the gate of the paddock that they are currently using; the barn contains the hay mangers, water and mineral salt.

In the spring, summer and fall, we allow the girls to stay in each paddock anywhere between 3-5 days (about 2-3 days in the winter), depending on how quickly they have eaten everything down. (All paddocks are not created equal--some are rockier, hillier, shadier). After inspecting the paddock to determine that the animals have indeed grazed everything down, we move them out and into the barn, close the gate and open the gate to the next most lush paddock. I have a small notebook whereby I keep track, by gate number, of the dates the paddock had been used and refer to it when deciding the sequence of rotation when it is not obvious. Each paddock gets at least a month's recuperation and up to 8 weeks' rest in the late spring/early summer.

Due to the forced grazing/browsing that the Voisin method requires, it is absolutely imperative that all poisonous plants are removed! (Please refer to Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids by Murray Fowler; Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America by Nancy Turner; Caring for Llamas: A Health and Management Guide by Clare Hoffman).

To digress a bit, a side benefit of converting our pasture to the Voisin method is that it helped to make the barn more utilizable and efficient. The barn itself is now an integrated part of the paddock/gate system. The shape of the paddocks makes it ridiculously easy to move all or any portion of the herd and the gates facilitate the movement even more--allowing us to rotate the herd into the next paddock, move any females for breeding into the breeding corral located on the other side of the barn, do maintenance and further separate the animals with the stalls in the barn.

On both sides of the accessible feeding area in the barn are stalls--two on one side and three on the other, which have interconnecting gates. One of the stalls has an opening (12" wide) with a grain tray nailed atop a movable sawhorse in the middle of the stall--this is our creep feeder for the young'uns. Further down is a tack room and a birthing/sickroom that is fully insulated and enclosed. And on the other side is another birthing/sickroom which has access to the outside--the outside being a part of the breeding corral separated by movable corral panels to allow versatility of living arrangements.

During the late Spring, which is when most of our breeding happens to occur, we bring over one of our studs from the male "stockade" on the other side of the driveway (which does not have the required number of animals or paddocks to make rational grazing work). The working stud resides for a few weeks in the breeding corral and has access to one of the inside stalls for shelter, food and water. It is then a simple procedure to separate any females for breeding and send them winding through the stalls into the breeding corral. We find we are field testing with far greater frequency due to the time-saving ease that this system affords us--and the ability to effortlessly separate the rejecting, pursued female from the sex-crazed male with the corral's sliding stall door or the movable corral panel's door.

Upstairs is the hayloft - with two trapdoors in the floor. We have a separate area where we put the gathered, uneaten hay from the mangers - which becomes the bedding straw. We pitchfork this straw through the trapdoor to the feeding room below when we want to add fresh floor straw. Similarly, we use the other trapdoor to throw down a few haybales for short-term storage right outside the feeding area. The front half of the bottom floor, besides containing the few haybales, also contains the grain barrels, the restraining chute, sink with large countertop, a counter with drawers and shelving for storing our most frequently used medical/maintenance supplies. Both front and back of the barn have large 10 foot barndoors on tracks.

Now that I've discussed how we've been able to utilize the Voisin method and integrate it with our barn, let's discuss how you can possibly use his grazing system. The first question generally asked by people interested in applying the Voisin system to their farm is: "What must the area of a paddock be?" Of course everybody's situation is different--consequently, this question has no definitive answer. It could be as much as 3 acres with a large herd with land of marginal grazing, or it could even be 1/30th of an acre for some of the smaller herds in high yielding pastures. A much more important decision to make is how many paddocks are needed to get adequate rest periods. Since shorter periods of occupation favour higher plant yields, the more paddocks one has, the more productive the pasture system will be.

The approach to take is (to ask yourself) how many paddocks could I possibly create on my property and how much money can I budget to accomplish this? This is one of those occasions when more is better--and once you're using the Voisin system correctly, you will see that any costs that were involved in getting started will soon be paid back from the increased productivity of your farm. (For the Voisin system to work, ten paddocks is probably the absolute minimum one can get away with - better to think in multiples of ten). Rational grazing requires much less time, effort and expense than feeding animals stored forage. Because of recent developments in fencing materials, particularly electric fencing, the cost and building of paddocks will be surprisingly low and easy to do. And with electric fencing, it is easy to relocate some fences or to subdivide more if necessary. You can reduce the expense even further by using portable electric fencing and moving it ahead of and behind the animals each time you move them to fresh pasture - but this does take a whole lot more time.

There are interesting variations too. For example, two groups of animals can follow each other in rotation. You may want a group of nursing/pregnant females in a paddock for the first day with a group of weanlings/yearlings grazing the same paddock the second day - thereby having the second group with lesser nutritional requirements always lagging one day behind. If you can manage this two group system, it is probably the ideal way to go. If you find that undergrazing is the problem, then the preferred and simplest solution is to machine mow it.

Mowing should probably be done regardless after the lamas have been rotated out of a particular paddock. As we all know, there will always be patches of grass left uneaten, parti-cularly around the manure piles; and if left unmown, they will continue to be a production loss haunting you for the rest of the season. As well, mowing will hasten the demise of weeds even faster, especially when done when weedy plants are forming flower buds. It is also vitally important to keep the paddocks as poop-free as possible--a chore much easier to accomplish due to the smaller units of pasture and done after each rotation.

Paddock size may seem important, but it's not nearly as important as being absolutely certain that you provide the required amounts of rest between grazings. Just remember that having more paddocks is better than fewer, smaller paddocks are better than larger, shorter occupation periods are better than longer, and that adequate rest is essential.

If you are interested in possibly applying this system of pasture management to your operation, I strongly recommend the book, Greener Pastures On Your Side of the Fence - Better Farming with Voisin Grazing Management by Bill Murphy, c.1987, published and distributed by Arriba Publishing, 213 Middle Road, Colchester, Vermont 05446, Phone: (802) 878-2347. It's an excellent book that will give you an understanding of the pasture ecosystem and, if applied to fit your situation, will guarantee to produce the healthiest pasture you have ever experienced!


Richard Krieger - Llama & alpaca breeder & author
Article reprinted with permission of Richard Krieger, Saltspringer Llamas & Alpacas, www.saltspringer.com