Fencing Key to Experiments With Rotational Grazing

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

LINFIELD, Pa. — Having a farm was never Sue Pengelly’s dream.

As she puts it, it was something that was placed in her and her husband’s laps by family members who didn’t want to see what was once a dairy farm developed into housing.

“It wasn’t that we were looking for that lifestyle. It came to us,” she said.

Nearly three years later, she’s become passionate about farming and is more than willing to try new things to find out what works best.

Like finding out what animals do best in a rotational grazing system, like the one she has set up on the 40 acres of land she is farming just outside of Linfield.

About two dozen people braved a cold rain to see Pengelly’s rotational grazing system Tuesday. The visit was organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA).

Pengelly has no background in farming and previously spent five years as a critical-care nurse. Her husband works full time for the utility UGI.

Much of what she’s learned has come from reading books on small farming, food and nutrition as well as attending workshops and other events.

In a departure from most rotational grazing systems, which might focus on one or two different types of animals, Pengelly and her friend, Fabian Smith, raise several kinds of heritage breed animals, including broiler and layer hens, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep.

“We didn’t know what we wanted to do. So we thought, well the best way to find out is to just try things,” Pengelly said.

The idea of rotational grazing is a farming philosophy she said she agrees with, since it allows animals to be outside where they also do a free service — eating grass that would otherwise have to be mowed.

“I’m sold on it because what I like is the animals have pretty much freedom. They are not confined to one area all the time in their own slop and they are eating a natural diet; grass not grain,” she said.

After consulting with Dan Ludwig and Sam High of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, Pengelly set up a 40-acre portion of the farm — 30 additional acres are across the street and in hay — split into two 10- to 15-acre grazing paddocks.

The system wasn’t cheap to put in. Pengelly and her husband spent thousands of dollars for permanent fencing around the 40-acre property, so animals wouldn’t get into the backyards of neighboring houses.

She then had to figure out how to set up the system itself.

She discovered that using portable fencing to move animals within the two paddocks was her best bet, since it provided flexibility to move animals whenever and wherever she wanted.

For around $239 apiece, she purchased several solar powered chargers, which can be removed and placed wherever they are needed.

But she’s also made some improvements that she believes makes moving the animals almost seamless.

Her sheep, for instance, graze in an area totaling 3,200 square feet. Pengelly has split that area into smaller paddocks, allowing the animals little slices of land to graze each day.

Her sister, Karen Fedor, suggested placing two parallel solar-powered fence lines on either side of the larger paddock area and splitting the smaller paddocks by using additional portable fencing and a 330-foot-long portable smart fence, which can be set up easily by one person.

The idea, Fedor said, is to make it easy to move the sheep from one place to another without having to move a lot of fencing each day.

“My sheep are pretty well-trained to the fence,” Pengelly said.

But not every animal is the same, of course, and each one requires something different.

Goats, for example, can’t be put in an area with portable fencing, she said, because they can jump too high and get out. So they are placed in other areas of the farm where there are brambles next to the permanent fencing.

The pigs aren’t easily adaptable to the fencing system either.

Smith said pigs are first placed in a trailer for a day or two with plenty of food to get them aquainted to being moved on the farm.

“I want them to associate good things with the trailer,” Smith said, adding that the trailer serves a dual purpose as an intermediate area before the pigs are sent to slaughter.

“It is a good thing to lessen the stress for when the pigs actually have to be on a trailer for butchering or other things,” she said.

When the pigs are placed on pasture, they’re initially put in small huts with electrical wires in the front to train them to the system.

After that, they are free to graze for as long as they want, but they can do a lot of damage, turning a lush green field into dirt and mud pretty quickly.

“You need to do things that are going to make things calm and cool,” she said.

When it comes to layer hens, Pengelly and her husband built small houses, complete with perches, where the hens can gather, lay eggs and move freely whenever they like.

The houses can be moved to the next paddock by simply using two handtrucks — one in the front, one in the back.

Sam High, who is now retired full time from the NRCS but still works part time, said he’s never seen a system quite like what Pengelly and Smith have set up.

“This is a little new for us. Normally, the person picks one or two species of animals and sticks with them. Here, because Sue is new at it, she is trying a little bit of everything to see what she likes best, what’s simplest, easiest to handle,” High said.

When it comes to grazing, High said producers should allow animals to graze in areas where the grass is well-established — between 10 and 12 inches high — and rotate once grass gets to between 3 and 4 inches.

“The reason for that is the growth point of the grass is within a couple of inches of the soil surface. You don’t want to graze down into the growth point because then you take the strength away from the plant. It allows the the plant to recover quicker,” he said. “You sort of have to play it by ear, watch what the animals are doing.”

The system isn’t much of a money maker, at least not yet.

Eggs are sold for about $4 a dozen off the farm.

Pigs are sold as halves or wholes to friends and family, which Pengelly said allows her to take the animal to any butcher she likes.

Lambs are butchered and also given to friends and family.

Several years into it, Pengelly said the time has come to make decisions on what animals will be kept on the farm.

One of her goals is to grow the number of ewes she breeds from the 20 she has this year to up to six dozen in the future. She hopes to raise lambs for meat and to sell between 50 and 100 a year.

Marketing her products is also another step, but that could be difficult given that she doesn’t consider herself to be much of a saleswoman.

“Really, the weak link for me is going to be marketing, which we need some good workshops on that,” she said. “I am not a marketer. I don’t know anything about it, I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t really like doing it.”

In the end, having the ability to raise animals in the open and giving them what she thinks is a more natural lifestyle is something that’s gotten Pengelly to love what she does.

“I’m really enjoying it. I like raising the animals and I like everything involved with that,” she said. “Part of my vision for the farm is to have it be a place for learning.”

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