By Matt Reese
Getting the most out of each bite in the pasture taken by livestock means many hours of management behind the scenes, but the investment offers ample return for the bottom line and long-term future of the farm.
Stuart Heavilin has poured significant time, money and know-how into his rotational grazing operation to maximize the potential of the family’s Harrison County farm, working alongside his wife, children, and parents.
“You know a cow’s mouth is maybe 4, 5 inches wide. Take a pair of scissors that wide and try to cut a daily amount of dry forage for that cow. How long is that going to take you? If you have grass that’s a foot tall, it’s not going to take you very long at all to do it. But if your grass is two inches, three inches tall, it’s going to take you awhile,” he said. “They can only eat so long. They’ll eat until they run out of time. They can only take so many bites because they have to ruminate. How many of them are going hungry? To me, the financials of managing my forage make sense. I’d rather have less livestock with good, high-quality forage and as much as they want because they’re going grow faster, perform better and have less disease. To me, that’s more economically feasible.”
After switching from grazing cattle to sheep in 2018, Heavilin is grazing about 50 ewes (100 head with lambs) on the farm that has been in his family for nearly 200 years. He’d like to build the flock to 250 or 300 on the approximately 40 acres of permanent pasture and 40 acres of hay. Much of the rest of the property is wooded, steep hillside with a 300-foot elevation change.
“Cattle don’t graze the same as sheep. The sheep are pickier,” he said. “I might actually add some stocker cattle back in to clean things up, like the fescue, behind the sheep.”
Heavilin grew up rotationally grazing dairy cattle with his father. After 20+ years of grazing livestock, his focus is on maximizing the natural production of the land, while setting the stage for a productive future on the farm. Heavilin moved to the overgrown farm in 2011 after going to Ohio State and getting a degree in animal sciences. He worked for Select Sires, in the coal industry and currently works for Harrison Soil and Water Conservation District.
With a busy schedule, and a growing flock, a big part of rotational grazing, especially with sheep, is proper fencing that is easy to manage.
“When we first started, we were using the galvanized electric fence wire — really thin stuff— spooling it out and putting it on step-in posts or t-posts. When you’re making the fence that’s great, but trying to pull it back down is a nightmare. I moved away from doing that and have gone to poly-wire on reels for the perimeter. For sheep I do three strands and I use metal or fiberglass step-in posts. I like the fiberglass posts because they’re lighter and smaller and they’re insulated,” he said. “When I had cattle, I was running single strands for the cross fences. It’s not cheap, but now I use Gallagher Smart Fence on reels. They’re quick and I can move fast. They’re four strands all built into one real as four reels that go together. It has a crank handle and a big apparatus you can carry and pull. It’s got a post built into the line so everything’s built right in —you just pull them off and set them. I can put up a lot of fence in a short amount of time.”
Heavilin uses a hefty 15-joule charger requiring 45-feet of buried ground rod to contain the sheep. He also uses a small solar charger. He carries a fence tester with him while in the pasture and has the big charger plugged in to a smart plug that can be turned off and on by cell phone.
“The sheep are trained to it and they’ll go a couple days with a not great fence, but after three or four days, if you don’t have enough power on it, the sheep will figure it out. They’ll start pushing through it. They’re always testing it,” he said. “When I move them, I almost never have to chase sheep. They’re ready for that new pasture. I try to keep them in pretty tight so that they don’t get to be choosy. They go in, eat, get a full belly and then they are ready to move on. I try to graze half and take half. I try to essentially keep the pasture in a vegetative state without going to seed. Sometimes with the sheep, because they are choosy, I’ll have to go through and mow behind them. They don’t like the fescue because it’s got a rough edge and it hurts their lips.”
The sheep will remain in a paddock for anywhere from 12 hours up to three days depending on pasture growth and the time of year. The sheep typically start on pasture in mid-April and graze into November before moving into the barn prior to December lambing. Paddock size is a judgement call based on the specific conditions and time of year.
“Right now, we don’t have enough sheep to graze all we have, so we’re not ever pushed. Eventually we’ll be there,” he said. “A lot of it is judgment call on gut instinct. You’re making the best use of what you’re given based on the circumstance. You can use tools to estimate what is out there, but you eventually do it enough that you just know. It just all depends on how everything’s growing and what they’re eating. I’ve gotten a little better about record keeping. I started using my smart watch with GPS on it. As I’m setting up the fence for the new paddock, I can put it into GIS software. Then I can go back and see exactly where my fence was and I can measure everything out. It is actually pretty fun and accurate enough that I can keep track of everything — when I moved them in, when I moved them out. I keep pretty good spreadsheet records, so I know when I went somewhere, what was going on and what the outcome was.”
Though the farm has plentiful springs, some developed, Heavilin mostly uses a water trough and moves it with the fence, transporting water from the barn. He relies on the grazing animals for fertility, but also will feed hay in some pastures to add nutrients and organic matter.
“Every field is different; some have less fertility. On the top side of the hill there is pretty poor pasture. It’s the furthest point away from the barns so nobody ever put anything on it. I’ve taken soil tests and we are working towards getting everything back to where it needs to be,” he said. “Not making hay in some fields is part of my nutrient management plan. If I’m not making hay, I’m not taking anything off the ground and every bale of hay I bring in is fertilizer coming into the farm. I’d rather buy hay, feed it to my animals and then use that as fertilizer than buy fertilizer, cut the hay off my fields, feed it to the sheep, and take it back out again. With grazing, you keep recycling it. When you start talking about how much fertilizer is in a bale of hay, it’s quite a bit. That’s a pretty cheap bale of hay if you count that fertilizer value. I actually haven’t done much with fertilizer in the permanent pasture. We’ve done liming and put a little bit of fertilizer on and are getting ready to put some more on this year.”
Some of the pastures have been re-seeded.
“I re-seeded when I first moved here. I planted some alfalfa and orchardgrass. It was seed from a big farm store ‘variety not stated’ orchardgrass, red clover and white clover too. When I seed again, I’m planning on using better genetics that can put so much more nitrogen in the ground. I’m not putting any fescue in because there’s plenty of it here, but it is great to stockpile, so I definitely want some around,” he said “I’ve also thought about putting warm season grasses into the rotation too. There are a couple places that don’t really get grazed very often because they’re kind of further away from everything. I thought about putting some warm season grasses in for grazing during the summer slump.”
The genetics of the sheep on the farm are diverse as well.
“At first, we bought kind of a hodgepodge here and there, whatever we could find that was in the right price range. Going back, I would have just bought a small flock of really good sheep and started from there,” Heavilin said. “We’ve started buying really good Dorset rams, there’s some black face sheep, there’s some Polypay cross in there too and a Friesian dairy sheep cross. My goal is to get down to where we have every lamb pretty much the same. That way we can really pick out the underperformers. Some sheep just don’t do great on grazing and if you have diverse genetics, it’s tough to compare apples to apples. We’ve been trying to hit the Easter market and when you’re lambing in the middle of winter it’s hard to get them up to size sometimes. This year we’re going to do an experiment to see if we can cut our feeding costs and see how bad it hits our prices when we go to sell them later. We’re going to delay lambing to try to more closely mimic nature and get the ewes out on pasture so when they need that energy, they can get it from all the grass and not as much from bringing in grain or alfalfa. I do supplement grain for the lambs. It’s expensive, but it’s made a world of difference with the rate of gain.”
As the farm continues to move forward, Heavilin has concerns with parasite resistance, continually improving carcass quality and producing the most output with the least input. Rather than focus just on the animals, Heavilin sees a future built from the soil, through the plants to the animals.
“I’ve gotten much more conscious of making sure that the forages are OK and to do that, you have to make sure the soil health is OK. We produced livestock and then we tried to get better at producing forages and let the livestock harvest them for us and now actually, what we should be thinking about, is raising healthy soils so that the forages can grow and our livestock can harvest them,” Heavilin said. “I’ll drive around and see pastures that look nice and green and uniform. I just shake my head, though, because if you dig a hole, you’re only going down two or three inches and then there’s no roots beyond that because it is so over grazed. Those roots can’t get in there for moisture and nutrients. There is no mycorrhizal fungi and all that stuff getting that soil to a place where it’s alive and productive.
“Economics aren’t all about how much money you made last year, but also in the future how much more productive is this soil going to be? Some of these fields on this farm were crop fields that were torn up quite a bit and they’re still recovering. It’s going to take time to recover and I think that’s what deters a lot of people who have gone from a continuous grazing system to rotationally grazing. The expectations are that it’s going to be great the first year, but it’s going to take years before it gets to the point where it needs to be with soil health. You’re probably going to cut back your number of animals until soil health improves and your forage quality comes back. I think that turns a lot of people off because they might do it for a year or two and say, ‘Well it’s just not working’ and then just go back to the way they were because it’s easier. You put all this work into it and it’s not a super big improvement right off the bat so it’s a struggle. I know that, but that’s just kind of kind of the nature of farming I guess.”