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.

Silvopasture Demonstration Plot

The Forest Service Department of Maryland Department of Natural Resources has asked us to work with them in developing a Silvopasture Demonstration Plot on 10 acres adjacent to the farmland that we are currently farming. It will combine timber/trees with pasture and will give Maryland landowners an example of how they can use their own land to produce timber and at the same time receive income from the land by grazing livestock while the trees grow. The silvopasture will consist of rows of trees planted in a pasture with 50′ grass spacings between the tree plantings. We will provide the livestock to graze the grass and we will also mow as necessary.

The silvopasture concept appears to be an excellent way to increase carbon sequestration on farmland without totally removing the land from food production. We look forward to working with the Forest Service on this project and applying some of the things that we have learned in carbon sequestering to this test plot. There will be some other tree plantings on adjacent parcels that will be used as controls to compare with the silvopasture experiment.

Daniel and Joel cutting up a dead tree at the edge of the silvopasture to get ready to put up a fence for the sheep.

Our Summer in Pictures

The kittens are at a very cute stage. Here is Fluffy posing in the flowers on the front porch. Fluffy’s mom is Midnight, the grandma and head matriarch of the other cats. She is a peacemaker. Whenever the male cats get into a fight, Midnight streaks across the yard and breaks up the fight. It is always interesting to watch.

Farm boys don’t need to work out at the gym. They do their weightlifting with slightly larger weights! What you don’t see is that the tractor is hooked up to a trailer with several ton of gravel on it which made the front of the tractor lighter.

We made hay stacks again this summer. In spite of modern technology, hay stacks are one of the best ways of preserving hay and makes a fun family project. Most hay today is crushed when it is cut to speed the drying process. Unfortunately, the crushing process also releases the vitamins in the grass, similar to what happens when grain is cracked or ground into flour or feed. If built properly around a pole, the hay stack sheds rain with only the outer 4 inches or so being affected by the weather. This year we used the conveyor to make the hay stacks which made the work much easier. We were also encouraged with the significant improvement in the soil and the amount of hay. Two years ago, this same pasture made only half as much hay.

Last week our sons Nathan, Daniel, and Joel purchased some more Texel sheep from a farm in Michigan for breeding stock. We left Thursday evening about 7:00 pm, drove through the night and arrived at the farm in Michigan at 8:00 am. With three drivers and beds in our conversion van, we were able to take turns sleeping. We returned home again Friday night about 11:00 pm.

Nathan purchased this Texel ram in Michigan to improve the genetics of his flock of sheep. Note how exceptionally wide the ram’s chest and front legs are. He is wide the whole way back. From the rear he resembles a pig with wool. The Texel breed is a heavily muscled breed that does very well on grass alone. They are also known for their superior meat quality and naturally lean meat. Two years ago in England, a Texel ram lamb set the world record for the highest priced sheep at £231,000 ($324,647). Nathan, 18, owns most of the sheep on our farm. You know a guy likes sheep when he puts all his money into buying sheep rather than buying a car!

Flowers of summer – a Stargazer Lily

School of Hard Knocks

Our farm is more than just a farm. It is a school where each member of our family is learning important lessons in life. The phrase “school of hard knocks” is an old saying used to describe lessons learned from life’s experiences as opposed to academic or college education. It is the hard knocks or difficult times in life that teach a person important lessons if the person is willing to learn.

We encourage each of our children to develop their own farming enterprise as they get old enough to do so. Our second oldest son, Nathan, is a true shepherd at heart and at 17 years old owns about 70 sheep. He also owns most of our breeding rams.

Several years ago he bought a purebred Texel ram for $400. The Texel breed is an old breed that does very well at finishing on grass, unlike many of the popular breeds that have been selected for their finishing on grain. The ram was an impressive, muscular animal. We divided the sheep into two flocks and separated them so that they could not see each other. The one flock had Nathan’s big Dorset breed ram. I once saw him ram one of our 700 lb steers and make him go on his knees! The other flock had the new Texel ram. The rams were with the ewes and bred the ewes for several weeks.

Then one day while we were away, a totally unexpected thing happened. Both flocks broke out of their fences and got together. The two rams battled it out, as male rams do, to see who would be the head animal. When we arrived home, the new Texel ram lay dead. Four hundred dollars gone! What a loss for a 15 year old. It was not only the loss of money, but the loss of valuable genetics for improving his flock. It was a lesson in the school of hard knocks. A hard knock from another ram can kill another ram. My grandfather used to say that it seemed like if something out of the ordinary happened, it often happened to one of his best cows.

To recover his losses, Nathan purchased some Texel ewes and another Texel ram who was the son of the one who was killed. However, the new ram was not as good a ram as the first one was. This spring Nathan’s Texel ewes gave him several nice ram lambs. The nicest ram lamb was Big Burr. His mother was nicknamed Mrs. Burr because she had found a burr patch and went into it, getting herself covered with burrs. Big Burr was the biggest ram lamb and he showed promise of taking the place of his grandfather who was killed.

At the beginning of July, Nathan noticed that Big Burr was missing. He had seen him two days before, but we couldn’t find him anywhere. There was no trace. We suspected that he had been stolen and reported him to the police and animal control. We also found out that a month before a 1200 lb cow and a calf had been stolen on Park Mills Road, several miles from our farm. Another place had 35 chickens stolen, and another two pigs stolen.

About a month later, one of the boys found a two pound sledge hammer in the front pasture where Big Burr was when he disappeared. The sledge hammer was a confirmation that he had been stolen. Another hard knock and another ram gone. Another hard knock in the School of Hard Knocks for a 17 year old. Not just the loss of a ram, but the loss of the genetics as well.

When Cathy heard about the hammer being found, she stated confidently that she was praying that Big Burr would return. I was surprised. We had found the murder weapon and she was still praying for his return. Nathan had also been praying for his return.

Several days later we got a call from Animal Control and they said that they had found a ram lamb with an ear tag that said Nathan Horst on it. They had picked him up on Bill Moxley Road near Mount Airy, about a half hour from our farm. The neighbors said he had been wandering around there for about a month. We picked Big Burr up from Animal Control that evening. He was in good health, although considerably thinner and very dirty. It was amazing that he was still alive. We wish he could talk and tell us his story. Did he escape from his captors? Did they dump him alongside the road? How did he escape from being killed by a dog or coyote in the month that he was wandering around? Where did he get water?

Nathan and Big Burr the night we brought him home. Note how dirty he was.

This was the second theft we had this year where the item was amazingly returned. The other time, Cathy left her purse in a shopping cart one evening and did not realize it until she got home. She immediately went back, but the purse was gone. It had not been turned in to anyone at the store. We prayed that it would be returned. It did not have much money in it.

About a week later, a man called one evening and said that he had her purse! His daughter’s friend had picked it up and given it to his daughter, and she had given it to him. Cathy met the man and got her purse back. Everything of importance was there except for a few items that a young girl might take: the pens, TicTacs, change, finger nail clippers, and an almost expired TracFone with only a few minutes left on it.

The lesson for us in these events in our School of Hard Knocks is that we have correctly named our farm. The literal meaning of the Hebrew words Jehovah-Jireh is “the God Who sees”. God saw what happened and returned the items. What a wonderful way to live. The School of Hard Knocks helps keep life interesting.

If I Had a Million Bucks

By Nathan Horst, age 11

If I’d have a million bucks,
I’d spend it all on sheep.
You wouldn’t catch me spending it
To buy a silly Jeep.

Of course I’d have to buy some land
And put in water tanks,
And then my sheep would smile at me
And baa their humble thanks.

My ewes would then have woolly lambs
That bounce and run all day,
While their mothers ate green grass nearby
And I would watch them play.

There is no other animal
That I like more than sheep.
That’s why I’d spend a million bucks
To get some sheep to keep.

Improvements in How We Raise Our Meats and Eggs

We are continually striving to provide you with the most nourishing food that we can. One of the things that we have learned from Carey Reams and RBTI (Reams Biological Theory of Ionization) is the importance of colloidal minerals and calcium for plants, humans and animals. Last year we changed our mineral supplement that we give to our sheep and we have been very impressed with the results. We used to use a mixture of kelp, salt, and an herbal mix to prevent parasites. The new mineral mix has the addition of colloidal minerals and calcium. We have had the highest rate of twins and triplet lambs of any year so far and the sheep and lambs have been doing very well.

This year we started adding the colloidal minerals in the form of soft rock phosphate, to our chicken feed. This will cost us about $1000 a year, however, we believe that based on the results that we saw with the sheep it will pay for itself in the long run. In addition, it should improve the nutrient/mineral density of your chicken meat and eggs.