Wheel of Farming

In the ever-rolling cycle of human agriculture, old practices can morph into new with modern information and technology.

People have been grazing animals from time immemorial. But multispecies rotational grazing is something very different. It’s the art of intensively managing a piece of land and increasing its productivity by moving a variety of domesticated animals over it—and today it’s gaining ground across the sustainable agriculture field.

“I see many more people doing it than when I started farming,” says Craig Haney, Livestock Manager at Stone Barns. “Everyone has their own mix of animals, but it’s definitely a growing trend.”

The idea is to rotate different animals out on the land, moving them through temporary paddocks so that they forage according to the height of grasses, their wastes naturally fertilizing grass and soil.

The time they spend on a plot of land is calculated so that it can recover before it’s grazed again. Craig has been practicing some form of multispecies rotational grazing since Stone Barns Center’s first year of production, but his methods have evolved.

The basic Stone Barns rotation begins with sheep, which Craig and his team move out onto the land only during the growing season, when grasses are eight to 10 inches high.

Then come geese, laying chickens, meat chickens and turkeys, each according to the height of grass. All animals are off the grass before it gets below three inches.

“Through rotational grazing, you can have 15% more productivity from the soils and grasses while raising more species of animal,” says Craig, noting that the 15% increase is based on the forage available for a single species; the amount of revenue generated per acre could be much higher.

“It lets us be more productive on a small acreage.” He also notes that some new technologies—electric twine and portable energizers that power this temporary fencing—give farmers a lot of flexibility about where and how to design and move a paddock.

In 2012, Craig and his team spent about 1,000 people-hours moving fences, animals, egg mobiles and water troughs, so it is labor-intensive. Says Craig, “I become like a choreographer.”