Grass Fed is Best? A Horror Story From our Living Lab

To hear some people talk, you might get the impression that raising chickens and animals on grass is the secret ticket to success in farming and to health. With grassfed, there will be no more problems and the chickens and animals will excel far beyond conventional farming methods. Any grass is good. All you have to do is get the animals out on the grass, in the sunshine and fresh air.

That is not true.

Before you think I fell off my rocker, I will state that I believe that grass fed is BEST! But, as you will see, not all grass is best or even able to properly sustain life.

I was shocked and very disappointed with the large amount of weight loss that our sheep experienced after only 16 days in the new silvopasture. Two specialists from the Maryland Extension service, had visited the silvopasture just before the sheep were put into the new pasture. They were very impressed with what they called the “high dairy quality” of the grasses and clovers. They were concerned that the forage would be too lush, too rich for the sheep and that they might bloat (their stomachs fill up with gas) . On the contrary, the sheep did not bloat and we were in for a big surprise when we weighed the sheep.
The 54 Adult Sheep : lost (-345.5 lbs.) total in the 16 days between May 14 & 30, 2015. This number included rams (males), ewes (females) with lambs, and year old females that were not bred. Many of the nursing mothers lost 10 to 15 lbs!

The 48 Lambs: gained significantly less than they did the 16 days before they were turned into the Silvopasture:

Gain between 4/28/15 & 5/14/15 (16 days) = 465.5 lbs. an average of .61 lbs of gain per day before being in the silvopasture.
Gain between 5/14/15 & 5/30/15 (16 days) = 209.1 lbs. an average of .27 lbs of gain per day
Weight gain difference = -256.4 lbs.

While these weight losses were very disappointing, they showed how dramatically different pastures can be. Grass fed will not produce healthy animals and poultry if the soil is not built up properly. The main part of our farm, where the lambs gained the most, probably had the same quality of grass as the silvopasture eight years ago when we first moved here. We applied some principles that we learned from Carey Reams and some that we had developed on our own from some of his teachings and it made a dramatic improvement in the pastures. The main concept is that at least 80% of a plant’s nutritional food/energy comes from the air. By building up the soil and foliar feeding the plants with milk and honey, we were able to increase the amount that the plants were able to take out of the air. One of the main things that we did was to repeatedly mow our pastures and let the grass lay on the ground. We have explained this in some of our other articles.

I also need to add that there were also a few other things that likely contributed to the weight loss – over maturity of some of the grasses and grazing too long for the quality of the forage.

What was significant was that on the main part of our farm, the pasture alone, with no grain feeding, produced a weight gain of .61 pounds per day in the 16 days before the lambs went onto the silvopasture. That is exceptional for grassfed only and comparable to grain feeding.

Mike Neary, Ph.D., Extension Sheep Specialist at Purdue University says this about lambs in the 45 – 80 lb range, which was the size of most of the lambs that we put on the silvopasture: “Lambs with high to moderate growth potential that are fed a grain based diet with proper amounts of protein should gain from .5 to .8 pounds per day…
“If lambs are grown on high levels of forage [pasture], then one can expect slower gains than if fed diets with a high amount of grain. Gains for lambs grown on pasture will normally be from .25 to .5 pounds per day.”

During the 16 days in the silvopasture, the lambs averaged .27 lbs of gain per day which is at the bottom end of what Neary said is the expected gain for lambs on pasture. However, the results were actually worse than that. During the time that the sheep were in the Silvopasture, it appears that from the amount of weight that the lactating ewes lost, they gave the fat off their backs to their lambs and that is why the lambs gained and did not lose weight like their mothers.

Last week we weighed a few of the ewes and lambs when we were sorting out the lambs to take to the butcher. We were encouraged that they were gaining weight again. Those lambs had gained about .67 lbs a day in nine days. We do not have the data yet for all the lambs.

The lesson in all of this is that all pastures are not the same and will not give the same health qualities to the eggs, meat and milk that they produce. The same is true of fruits and vegetables in the store. They may look beautiful, but be lacking in the nutrition to adequately sustain life.

Sheep grazing what appeared to be very lush forage in the silvopasture demonstration plot.
Sheep grazing what appeared to be very lush forage in the silvopasture demonstration plot.

The soil in the 8 acres in the silvopasture is about as chemical free as it will get. It has been probably at least 20 years since it had any chemicals or chemical fertilizers put on it. It also had not had any animals on it or any farming activity for at least 10 years before the silvopasture was established; therefore, it did not have the immediate negative affects of chemicals or bad farming practices. The forage specialists had recommended the grasses and legumes to plant to reduce the amount of tall fescue grass that was in the pasture. Tall fescue has a toxin in it that negatively affects sheep and cattle. Those grasses and legumes had been planted and looked beautiful as you can see in the picture.

In spite of the problems, I am looking forward to what we will be able to accomplish in the silvopasture. I feel that we have a solution, by repeatedly mowing the silvopasture to build up the soil. We also will be spraying milk, honey, and egg as a foliar spray to increase the photosynthesis and brix (sugar) of the pasture grasses and legumes. In the next three years, I believe that we will see a very significant improvement in the pasture growth and nutrition in the silvopasture, and a significant growth increase in the trees over the trees planted in the adjacent fields.

For me, the silvopasture gave me a reference point that showed that we had indeed improved our pastures from when we first moved to this farm.