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Sheep Tractor?

 
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Hello everyone,

I live in western Washington State on almost seven acres. It's a flat piece of land mostly covered with grass that hasn't been mowed in a few years. I'm planting a lot of the property into fruit and nut trees, and I'm trying to find a way of keeping the grass mowed that doesn't rely too much on a mower. I'm hoping to be able to use sheep, pigs, or some other kind of animal to keep the grass down (due to it being a fire hazard here more than anything).

I'm worried that these animals would damage my young trees, so I think fencing the field off and leaving them there isn't a good option. I was wondering if anyone has any experience with raising sheep in a tractor (preferably one that can be moved by two people). Please feel free to include any other ideas about mowing like this in general.
 
pollinator
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We purchased five lambs last fall, and without good fencing quite set up yet we did something similar to what you're asking.  Our "sheep tractor" consisted of four 16' long cattle panels (50" high).  Three of the joints were wired together, while the fourth was closed with rope to make it easier for us to go in and out as needed.

It was a pain to move, really, though I think actually BUILDING a sheep tractor would make a big difference.  It wasn't heavy so much, just cumbersome to yank around given the lack of rigidity and the ease with which the bottoms of the panels would catch on tussocks of grass.  I'd think building it on skids (perhaps PVC?) and adding a bit of framing to stabilize it would have made a big difference.  The upside to our low-key method is that, with no structure, we could form it into whatever shape we needed depending on what/where we were trying to graze.

We never bothered to make ours easier to move, because it was a short-term solution, but I don't see why it wouldn't work.  I don't know how likely it is that predators could/would climb a 50" cattle panel, but we had a guardian dog penned up with the sheep so we weren't too concerned there.  A roof, of course, would give added protection (and shade), but at the expense of extra weight.

For what it's worth, the area enclosed by the four cattle panels gave just about the perfect amount of daily grass for five six-month-old lambs, though that is of course dependent on the size and number of sheep and the quality and amount of grass.
 
Wes Hunter
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Another thought would be to use geese for the mowing.  They, too, will damage young fruit trees, but I'd think it'd be easier and cheaper to protect the trees from geese than from sheep.  Geese won't mow tall/mature grasses, but once it's cut they'll keep it largely in order, provided you've stocked enough geese.
 
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Building on the idea of the 4 panel "tractor," I'd suggest 7.  

Essentially, use it like poultry netting, building two square paddocks with the "gate" panel in the middle dividing them.  When you move the animals from paddock #1 to #2, you disasssemble Paddock #1 and move it to the other end to make Paddock #3...  Rinse/Lather/Repeat indefinitely.  When the time comes, and we've got our own land where we can raise what we want without censure from a municipal body, I intend to raise feeder hogs in this manner.
 
pollinator
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So Chris, are you essentially talking about making it so you can take three panel walls off one end of the enclosure to put it on the other, essentially making two panel paddocks with a shared wall?

If that's the case, I think it's a good solution to many situations, James' included. Three panels wouldn't be heavy to fold up and drag to the other end of the enclosure. The sheep remain contained in the standing four panel paddock.

And if it is largely modular in design, you can make a roofed shelter section that you can move separately at need, rather than having to design a whole enclosure that is light, strong, rigid enough to drag, won't catch on the grass, and will still conform to irregularly shaped spots.

I think that, where conditions require it, tractoring sheep is a great way to keep them safe and to benefit from moving them around on the land. But I think it would be less help, and more hindrance, to bind oneself to the idea that an animal tractor in this sense needs to be a singular, self-contained, integrated unit.

I like the idea that you could keep a large section of enclosure up, move another section into its new place and connect it, encourage any stragglers into the new space (like they wouldn't want fresh grazing!), close it off, move all the rest of the tractor modules to their new position, and join it all up again.

James, could you tell us a little more about what else you're working with? Do you have a pond, or an option for one? Would geese be an option?

When you say that you're planting a lot of the property into fruit and nut trees, and that you're looking at a mobile enclosure, that makes me think of a fruit and nut savannah kind of space, a polycultural orchard-type space, but with a little more elbow room for the individual trees, and maybe a shrubby understory guild for each individual. Does that sound accurate?

I want to do similar things, but my take on it actually incorporates the idea of regular animal access.

Most land I have looked at was sloped, somewhat, so my ideas revolve around putting swales on contour, then making hugelbeet rows on the downhill sides and planting them in a fruit and nut food forest, and spacing everything such that alleys of perennial pasture, and some field crops, would run between them. The livestock would mostly be kept on the perennial pasture lanes, and would keep the fruit and nut hugelkultur guild from spreading into the lanes by eating windfalls of whatever sort, as well as vegetative vectors, and they would occasionally be used to cycle green manures and crop residues between crop cycles.

Whatever you decide, good luck, and please keep us in the loop.

-CK
 
James Landreth
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Thanks for all the responses!

Chris Palmberg, I've thought about something like that. I was thinking about driving T-posts into my land at 16 foot intervals down the alleys that will be between my trees. I could then do what you're saying and have it be pretty solid fencing. My only concern is predators. I've never raised sheep and I'm afraid of leaving them out there overnight. I have a barn I could put them in at night, so maybe I could try something like that?

Wes, your idea sounds like a good start too. Again, I'll just have to think about how to protect them. I don't want to commit to a livestock guardian dog right now.

This year I had geese, but with no way to move them around safely, I kept them in confinement mostly. I did put them in a dog kennel on grass occasionally, but it was hard to move. Maybe I'll try putting wheels on it. Geese might work again (I put mine in the freezer) but they did get pretty loud. Maybe on pasture they'd be less noisy. I've also heard that turkeys are good mowers. If they are they would be better. I love goose, but my family won't eat it. If I go this route I would have to have my property mowed mechanically at least once I suppose, so that they'll eat what's left. How many geese per acre would be enough to keep it manageable, do you think?

Hi Chris Kott,
Yes, I have a small pond and am digging more. My experience has been that so long as they have some water, even in a tub or buckets, the geese seem fine, so I think that might be an option. I have about 6.5 acres, all flat and rectangular. The property runs east to west and has really good southern exposure. In the northern part of the field I'm planting taller trees like cherries, some kinds of chestnuts, walnuts, persimmons, etc. Then the middle rows are a mix of trees that are next in size, and so on. I'm putting hugel beds in between some trees as well as nitrogen fixers like goumi berries. The hugel beds make it easier for me to add diversity and they also soak up extra winter water. I'm thinking about leaving the aisles clear, relatively, or at least easy to maneuver around, so that I can make it more manageable to keep the grass down. As I've said, it's a real fire hazard in summer. I'm still learning about guilds and such, but that's the basic situation for now.
 
Chris Palmberg
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Joel Salatin talks about his approach to pasturing birds with electric poultry netting both in his books and in his interviews.  In essence, he uses 7 panels of netting to make two concurrent square paddocks.  When he's ready to move the birds, he drops the center pane, moves the shelter, and the birds follow.  He then restores the central panel, and moves the 3 panels from the now vacant paddock to create his next paddock, effectively Rinse/Lather/Repeat'ing his way down the field.  

I've considered this approach with panels for hogs, and I don't see why it wouldn't work for small ruminants as well, although I'm guessing stocking rates are going to be pretty low unless you're willing to move them 3-4 times daily.  I suppose you could, in theory, also do this with larger, non-flighty birds (my Royal Palm Turkeys occassionally decided that 15' up a tree seemed better than going back to their field shelter at night) like ducks or geese that don't have much in terms of vertical access.  

As for predator issues, geese make notorious Livestock Guardian...um... Birds, particularly if set up solo (apparently, paired geese get sidetracked doing OTHER things.)  Dogs with the bloodlines for being bouncers, either LGD or Shepherds, if trained from an early age by immersion therapy, can also be great predator deterrents.  I would say don't worry about papering and pedigrees... our main working dog is some mix of Catahoula and Purple Heeler (he has the coloration of both blue and red heelers, with the spotted markings of a Cat.) He herds chickens, goes on point for eggs, and chases anything he doesn't think belongs near "HIS" birds.  He even went rogue in early fall and refused to come in at last call because one of the 6w pullets had gotten out of their shelter and he was keeping it safe.  
 
Posts: 215
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My experience with sheep and trees was somewhat comical. I though I could put 2 sheep into a hillside orchard with large fruit trees. What happened is that they immediately started to act like goats, standing on their hind feet to grab at any branches they could reach. I spent the next 45 minutes trying to get them out of the orchard, but they were wild and crazy, until they were tired enough to comply with being herded. Never again! But we've had very good results from chickens and ducks for insect control and somewhat for keeping the vegetation down. Getting the numbers right is the most tricky part.
 
Wes Hunter
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I would respectfully suggest that the leap-frog method with seven cattle panels is not a very workable idea.  For one, it's a lot of assembly and disassembly.  As in, every single day, probably at least once per day (depending on number and size of sheep).  Cattle panels, as tall and long as they are, are quite floppy and thus not exactly cooperative when you're trying to move them around and set them up.  I speak from experience.  Hog panels, being shorter, would be somewhat easier, though of course at the expense of less protection for the sheep.

I don't see what one gains by using the leap-frog method versus just putting four panels on skids and pulling the whole shebang.  With lightweight framing (say, 1x3 lumber) and lightweight skids (such as PVC), plus a lightweight roof (thin sheet metal, or a tarp that is well supported), a four-panel sheep tractor ought not be prohibitively heavy.  The addition of a couple wheelbarrow tires (which can be thrown on just for moving) greatly reduces the effort needed.  And at the end of the day, you will have managed to give the sheep the same amount of grass for a lot less time and labor.
 
pollinator
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A friend of mine keeps goats and chickens in a large movable pen. This pen has a winch powered by a 12v battery connected to a solar panel. The winch is set on a cheap timer to turn on every so often and pull in the cable which is staked out far away from the pen. The net effect is the pen is automatically moved to new grass on a timer and my friend doesn't have to touch it except to move the stake and pull out the winch cable to restart the whole process again. This keeps the goats on fresh grass without having all the labor of moving the large pen. He's been running this for nearly two years now. He has the timing dialed down after a short trial-and-error period. Daily fresh milk and eggs from animals that are grazing on new grass all day. Pretty sweet set up, actually.

 
Chris Kott
pollinator
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I love the idea of setting up a winch to pull a skidded tractor system around. I love the potential to have it set up to do all the heavy lifting itself for a week or so, and all I would have to do would be monitor it. I would still want to be around it, or have someone checking on them twice a day, no matter whether we're talking sheep or poultry, but it would still be one less thing to do in a busy day.

-CK
 
Wes Hunter
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Dan Grubbs wrote:A friend of mine keeps goats and chickens in a large movable pen. This pen has a winch powered by a 12v battery connected to a solar panel. The winch is set on a cheap timer to turn on every so often and pull in the cable which is staked out far away from the pen. The net effect is the pen is automatically moved to new grass on a timer and my friend doesn't have to touch it except to move the stake and pull out the winch cable to restart the whole process again. This keeps the goats on fresh grass without having all the labor of moving the large pen. He's been running this for nearly two years now. He has the timing dialed down after a short trial-and-error period. Daily fresh milk and eggs from animals that are grazing on new grass all day. Pretty sweet set up, actually.



Salatin suggests a similar (well, sort of) idea in which a cow is kept in a small shed on skids.  She can reach through the front of the shed to graze, and in theory the shed is light enough that when she leans (to reach the grass further out) she pulls it along, and potentially a chicken tractor or something similar behind it.  I'd be curious if anyone has actually tried implementing it.
 
Dan Grubbs
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Hope this photo will show up but this shows the expanded pen now that he has added a dairy cow. The cow is a new addition about a week ago, so we'll see how that turns out.
 
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Someone posted this one on a Kathadin Facebook group. I've considered it for my ram and a wether, but I'm afraid it would need to be moved multiple times per day. The lady that built the pen said the group of lambs in the pen needed to be moved more than once and I don't have time for that. But it would give you great control over what's getting grazed and rest periods. It's 16'x16'.
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James Landreth
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The pictures are great. Wes, does Salatin go into more detail about this? Was this mentioned in one of his books?
 
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Forgive me if this was already mentioned. I read through but could have missed someone. But have you thought of just using electric sheep  netting? We have had HUGE success with it. It’s so fast and light weight to put up. It talked me (smaller framed not very stron female) about 30 minutes of light work to get it totally moved. It would also provide great predator protection. We have TONS of coyotes on our property. So many that neighbors come by asking if they can hunt them on our property because they see so many while driving by. We have 16 ewes, 3 rams, and 11 lambs just born- with no predator issues at all. Each fence is $160 ish from premier 1 supplies. We got a charger and a couple used hospital batteries for about $80 total. The sheep really respect it too. All it took was one big shock and they stay clear of it.
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Wes Hunter
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James Landreth wrote:The pictures are great. Wes, does Salatin go into more detail about this? Was this mentioned in one of his books?



It was an idea he floated in one of his books, yes, but I couldn't tell you which one.  He mentioned it while discussing the idea of letting animals do the work.  No schematic or anything, just a "Hey, what if..." kind of thing.  If I recall, his original proposition involved raising veal calves.
 
James Landreth
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Hi Taylor,
I don't really have much experience with electric fencing. How would I go about figuring out what to get? Would calling that Premier 1 work? It's something to think about. I'd prefer to develop a system that I can be more self-sufficient on maintaining and fixing, but maybe electric netting is something I should consider
 
gardener
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Look at what i saw today
20180218_111605-640x480.jpg
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James Landreth
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I found a video by them on YouTube, but no official website. I'm going to give them a call.
 
wayne fajkus
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I had a pretty good discussion with him and can probably answer basic questions. They are made in Texas.  
 
James Landreth
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Thanks Wayne. I sent you a message with some questions. I wasn't able to get ahold of him today
 
wayne fajkus
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My full response wont go through. That one with roof is $1700. Holds 8 sheep. Any competent welder could make one, since shipping would be tuff to you.
 
wayne fajkus
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The rep is using one to fatten a cow. Tires dont go flat. On flat terrain, one person can move it. They are developing a winch with software so you can auto move it a predetermined distance per day.

 
James Landreth
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Thank you. That is a bit pricey, and that's without shipping. I don't know how to weld, but maybe it's worth learning
 
wayne fajkus
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Female sheep are not aggressive.  4 goat panels at $50 each. $100 for 2 wheels and misc hardware. Youd have a 10 x 10 for about $300. And one person could move it.
 
Chris Kott
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There's an automatic fish feeder my much better half was using to feed fish in absence of their owners. It was a motor unit with a battery, and a switch that selected 12 hr or 24 hr operation that turned a cylinder holding fish food so that a trap door in one place on the cylinder could dump a measured amount of feed in either 12 or 24 hour intervals.

Unless the space requirements are more complicated than a straight line, I think all one would need is a straight shot of pasture several times the length of the sheep tractor, a frame for said tractor that would withstand being pulled from a single point, and a winch scaled to the task mounted to that point. From there, all you need is an anchor point to pull towards, and the same sort of control assembly used on the fish feeder could be used on the winch to get it to move the length of the tractor once or even twice in a 24 hour period.

No, you can't exactly duct tape them together and have it work. You need a timer with an operational period that can be timed to the motor speed and length of tractor. But you could even find a mechanical timer, self-winding and working on the solar and battery setup that will power the winch. No electronics for the mechanism required.

Mind you, the idea of a livestock-powered livestock tractor is intriguing. I would totally try the whole feed hole harness with candy just out of reach trick. Reminds me of the typical cartoon of the unwilling donkey being encouraged along with a carrot dangling just out of reach, suspended from a stick by a string held by the clever child riding the plow.

I wonder if a section of the floor on the leading edge of the tractor could be made with a sort of treadle mechanism, and the supplied feed, that the livestock resort to when it's tastier than what remains on grazed pasture, would be stored such that the treacle operates when they go for the feed. In that way, the animals would move the tractor to better grazing in an automatic function of your tractor system. No controllers, batteries, panels, or software.

-CK
 
Taylor Cleveland
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James Landreth wrote:Hi Taylor,
I don't really have much experience with electric fencing. How would I go about figuring out what to get? Would calling that Premier 1 work? It's something to think about. I'd prefer to develop a system that I can be more self-sufficient on maintaining and fixing, but maybe electric netting is something I should consider



Premier 1 is externally helpful. I have called them numerous times with lots of stupid questions and they have worked through them with me. They sell the netting (which is in the picture) and also strand poly wire which would be a lot cheaper but a larger learning curve I think. I’m sure if you explain your plan with them they can direct you to the right product. I have noticed on instagram, all the grass fed lamb people that farm mid-large scale use the netting as well. It’s just a great product that works well and keeps your livestock safe from predators. You can buy it from other companies that may be cheaper. I haven’t bought from anyone els because we have a local dealer of premier 1 but I know people that use the other brands with great success.
 
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wayne fajkus wrote:Look at what i saw today



I just ran across that on youtube today!



It looks perfect for what I'd like to do. I want to have 3 or 4 little Shetland sheep on my 1 acre of grassy hill without having to move fence posts all the time or fence the whole area. I'm wondering if these could be made without access to a welder. Maybe bicycle wheels would be better than the little wheels they have? I'm wondering what to do, too, for breaks so it doesn't roll down the hill...


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My grassy hill that needs some sheep!
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Another view of the same hill. I feel like such a hypocrite having all that grass with no sheep
 
wayne fajkus
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It could be as simple as 4 chainlink gates connected together. For movement, wheels could work or use skids and pull it with a vehicle.
 
Nicole Alderman
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So, I'm thinking of small dog-sized sheep (like Shetlands). Would three of them in a pen the size of the video, be too crowded? Do sheep need/love to run long distances? I don't want to be someone who puts a giant fish in a small aquarium, or chickens in a tiny coop. I don't know enough about sheep to know if an enclosure this small is too small for them to be "happy"/sheepy in...
 
wayne fajkus
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Is there a concern that you need to add dogs into the pen? It should be secure enough to keep predators out. Seems like dogs would add other issues.

If you get baby sheep (bottle fed or just weened) you can adapt as needed. The cool thing, especially when dealing with small numbers, is they will LOVE you. My wife can take our bottle fed sheep and take her out for a walk on our property. No leashes, etc. Shivers stays by her side. I think in your setting you will get the same thing. Heck, you can let them out to move the pen. A little feed and they are right back in. So yes. They are penned, but i think you can get them exercise. As much or as little as you have time.just let them out and play with them. You would likely do that for the dogs, so skip the dogs and get the sheep. The time you would spend with the dogs, use for the sheep.
 
wayne fajkus
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I just looked at the pen. I'm guessing 20ft x 20ft. The babies like to run and buck. Its too cute. That space is adequate for that. The adults do run, but mainly to get away from something. I think 2-3 sheep in that pen with fresh grass would be happy.

What about a ram? What about breeding? Any plans for that? One of the things people dont think about is birthing. Like i have 2 female cows and 1 bull. I go full circle(birth to slaughter). The 3 become 5, then 7 before 2 goes to slaughter bringing it back to 5. Cycle keeps repeating. People plan for the 3, not the 7. Thats when things get out of hand.
 
Nicole Alderman
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We wouldn't be keeping a dog in there (we don't have a dog right now, and won't until the kids are older. My husband LOVES Austrian Shepherds, and that kind of dog would probably really stress out a sheep, so any dog would be kept from the sheep). I just said dog-sized to refer to the size of the sheep. Sheep seem a lot more useful than a dog right now--they mow the lawn, potentially make milk, and make fiber for my fiber arts!

I was thinking I'd make a permanent, safe shelter by the house, and maybe lead them to and from the mobile pen each day. It sounds like that might be a good option, if I get them little and train them to it. Yay! Thank you for the great, first-hand info, Wayne!
 
Nicole Alderman
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wayne fajkus wrote:I just looked at the pen. I'm guessing 20ft x 20ft. The babies like to run and buck. Its too cute. That space is adequate for that. The adults do run, but mainly to get away from something. I think 2-3 sheep in that pen with fresh grass would be happy.

What about a ram? What about breeding? Any plans for that? One of the things people dont think about is birthing. Like i have 2 female cows and 1 bull. I go full circle(birth to slaughter). The 3 become 5, then 7 before 2 goes to slaughter bringing it back to 5. Cycle keeps repeating. People plan for the 3, not the 7. Thats when things get out of hand.



I'm thinking right now, I'd start with things being simple, without breeding the sheep. Just keeping them as lawnmowers and fiber-makers for a year or two. Once I've got that down (and my kids are older), I'll look into breeding. Maybe keep a ram in a separate mobile fence? Maybe just breed the sheep with another local sheep owner? My husband is looking forward to tasty sheep meat, but I'm still not sure we'd be able to eat a sheep we raise, as we'll have so few that they'll feel like pets. We had a hard enough time turning our extra male ducks into dinner....

I honestly terrified of the birthing. Anatomy and physiology are not my strong points, and I really worry about the babies/mama dying because I didn't know what to do. A duckling dying is pretty horrible and depressing...but I'm thinking a lamb would be far worse.

 
wayne fajkus
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I read it wrong. Thanks for clarifying. We have hair sheep. St croix. They are small. No sheering. We do harvest them before 12 months. It can be done in house, very similar to a deer. That discipline is needed. This year was our second birthing and we had 3 sets of twins for a total of 6. We keep the ram separated as they can give birth twice a year. You can see how number can get out of control. If they all had access to ram the next birthing could add 18 more of them. Eeek!
 
wayne fajkus
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We had big problems with katadyns(sp?). They all died.  One had a false pregnancy (no ram). Her udder filled up. She got sick and died. The others died the next few months. One while pregnant. I think the issue was dust from being stalled too much. Im still working on more paddocks during the day. Now we only stall them during birthing and we lay down hay in the stalls (great for the potato beds!). I think this resolved it.

No problems with the st croix. In fact, no birthing issues at all. We go down and see the cute babies. I cant say the same with cows, turkeys, or chickens. Once the cause(dust) was removed we have done nothing except bottle feed on rejected lamb.its been flawless.
 
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I'm happy with the electronet but it takes some planning. I bought six sections (big up front investment) and the biggest solar charger. This allows me to do a leapfrog with 200' of net, sheep in one paddock, chickens optimally 3 days behind, and two sections taken down behind the procession and put up for the next paddock. What it allows is for a super-fast movement into the new paddock. I move the fence sections when I feel like it.

What people don't realize is that the chickens (in my experience) have to be moved in twilight, either early morning or evening so they are all in the trailer coop (which we call poultry in motion or rotisserie chickens or whatever seems funny). I mean you can do it at night but it sucks. I wait until they are in their trailer, push the trailer to the new paddock , and they emerge the next day in the new spot. Moving the trailer is a 30 second job. Moving the fence is 1) mowing the fenceline 2) setting up the new paddock 3) testing the wire 4) figuring out where the voltage loss is occurring (20% of the time) and trimming that up 5) taking down the old fence and critically storing it so that it isn't a rats nest and will go up when needed quickly.  Having the extra nets means those steps can be done on my schedule not the freaking birds'. I have designed the rotation so the whole operation moves either on contour or down a slight grade every third paddock or so, and the paddocks MUST meet on the turns or an extra charger is needed, and they are pricey. Lots of planning, unfortunately and actually that defined the shape of the plantings (which is crazy but works).

there are other ways I considered doing it. One is to have no solar on the fence battery, and have a two battery rotation with a stationary charger, and that is probably cheaper and you can get a monster deep cycle battery for the same price. I find in the winter I have to take the battery out of the fence charger and charge it up anyway because the sunlight isn't enough, so I had to get an extra 10Ah dinky battery for $30. You can get a 100Ah battery for twice that and run for a couple weeks without worry. The battery could live on the same trailer with the chux and get switched out every week or whatever. The weight isn't that important because the trailer weighs quite a bit with the water, and an extra 30kg isn't the biggest deal.

The zap from the net is no joke. Mine is always 4000V or more. It sucks. We've had no successful predation in two years. We've had two killed through the fence, but left when the animal got zapped, there was no reinforcement to the predator, they left empty handed with a very sore nose. I got the highest fence (think it's 42"), and the alleys are narrow by design, and we've had one hawk take a look and decide it wasn't worth it. Nothing has tried jumping it because psychologically they don't see the net as a barrier and try to go through and get walloped. The fence has been collapsed in four or five times as new predators try their luck.

this thing has been so impressive we have given up on predator-proof fencing on the perimeter or an LGD for now. I see tracks in the snow during the winter and the coyotes/foxes just go around it widely at this point, it's hilarious, we have a well trained pack.  

 
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Tj, do you use poultry netting (with smaller holes) or regular electro netting?  How high is it?
 
Tj Jefferson
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Tallest poultrynet 42" I think. If leapfrogged the nets must be the same. That's kind of a drag bc sheep and their predators probably would be fine with two strand polywire. Which is cheaper, lighter and less vegetation burden.

I have to say Mark shepard has no poultry predator protection but dense hedgerows and says he almost never loses birds, and I might try with another flock when the hedgerows are bigger. He uses polywire just to keep the grazers in and I think a mobile coop to get eggs water winter feeding and roosting might be fine.
 
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