Rotational Grazing at BF Farm
A Holistic Approach to Parasite Management Reduces a Need for Chemical Dewormers
Mark Bengtson and Jodey Fulcher were not raised as farmers or ranchers. Mark describes himself as a former city person raised in the New England area. While Jodey was raised in Georgia, working family farms during the summer, he also didn’t know that much about animal husbandry before he and Mark partnered together to create BF Farm. They began as a small, 35-acre operation in Georgia but have since moved to Missouri. They now operate a 200-acre farm with three breeds of animals. Through trial and error, they have implemented a rotational grazing system that has allowed them to eventually stop using chemical deworming agents on their livestock.
When Mark and Jodey started out, they mostly had commercial cattle and goats without being very breed-specific. In the beginning, with their limited knowledge and small land area, parasites became prolific in their herd. They say they probably lost half of their goats in that first year. They almost gave up, but fortunately, they did some extensive research before giving in. Through their research, they learned about Kiko goats from New Zealand. These goats are descended from the various breeds that managed to escape their pens many years ago and flee into the mountains. Because New Zealand’s climate and landscape are very different from that to which goats are typically best adapted, these goats had to become tough to survive. Only those who tolerated the increased moisture, harsher winters, and could resist the greater number of parasites in the humid environment were able to reproduce. This shaped a very hardy, parasite-resistant breed. This is the breed of goats that Mark and Jodey chose to continue their farm operation. They made similar choices in other animals, choosing kunekune pigs and Black Hereford cattle to round out the farm and help their rotational grazing plan to work.
While the Kiko goat’s increased resistance to parasites is a contributing factor, the rotational grazing system is what keeps BF Farm from needing chemical dewormers. On BF Farm, 50 acres are portioned into 12 fenced pastures. These pastures vary in size ranging from two to 12 acres. The herds are divided by species and then by gender (although lactating mothers keep their young with them regardless of the gender of the offspring). Usually, the males and females are kept more than a single pasture apart to prevent overeager bucks from climbing the fences to get to the does. Herds are moved to a new pasture each week and will not return to pasture until at least six weeks have passed. By this point, all eggs and larvae left in the droppings will have died. Typically as goats are led to a new pasture, the pigs will occupy the pasture the goats just left. Cattle will then be moved to the pasture that the pigs have vacated. Because these three species have different preferences for natural feed, this does not cause overgrazing. The parasites that tend to plague these species also do not cross between these three, so even though there are still animals grazing in the pasture, it can still count toward the needed time before the first herd can return. Even the number of flies that pester a cattle operation has decreased since implementing rotational grazing because the cow pies are allowed to fully dry and break down without building up. Of the 150 acres that are not portioned into the rotating pastures, most of the land is allowed to grow freely without much grass cutting. This builds a natural stockpile that can be used for the winter. Since parasites go dormant in below-freezing conditions, even just overnight frosts, rotational grazing is not as important during wintertime.
All animals, goats included, have parasites. Having some parasites is simply part of living and grazing. An animal becomes ill when the parasites found in their body become overpopulated. This can kill these animals very quickly. As the parasites that live in the intestinal tract of an animal lay eggs, those eggs are deposited in the animal’s feces. The eggs hatch and larvae emerge. The larvae have fat on their backs which sustains them until they can find a host. However, the parasites will be out of their reserves by six weeks’ time if they do not find a host, effectively disrupting the life cycle without further infection or reproduction. When animals graze, especially close to the ground as the feed is used up in a pasture, the animal ends up ingesting these eggs and larvae that then repopulate the intestinal tract. This is what causes the parasite overpopulation. Many farmers and ranchers spend a lot of money deworming their livestock. Every dollar you spend on deworming agents equals less revenue in your business, yet dead animals negate revenue even more. Yet another concern with chemical dewormers is the emergence of worms that are resistant, or able to survive, the deworming agent. When the parasites that survive deworming are resistant, they may be allowed to spread that resistance through an entire herd, making deworming both expensive and useless. By using rotational grazing and only bringing in deworming agents when necessary, you can reduce deworming resistance as well as increase your own revenue.
Most backyard homesteaders do not have 200 acres at their disposal for this large scale rotational grazing project. However, the practices and methods can still be implemented on a much smaller scale. As long as you have at least four pastures, you can rotate your herd and help break the life cycle of the parasites. Ideally, you would want to let a pasture rest for six weeks before grazing it again, but even four weeks will allow a large number of the parasites to die off before they can reinfect your herd. If you have more than one species of animal, keeping them separate in the rotation can help the droppings to break down better and helps the plant life to rejuvenate by allowing the different varieties to grow back at different times. This way, a pasture is never fully stripped. One caution in having different species is to research the habits and temperament of a species before bringing them into your setup. Many breeds of pigs can be very rough and tear up a pasture, making it harder for the plants to proliferate. The kunekune pigs at BF Farm were partially selected because they are less rough on their surroundings. A few more factors in the success of your rotational grazing include not overpopulating your acreage and buying from reputable breeders. How much livestock your land can support is determined in part by the quality of the feed in your pastures. It can also be influenced by zoning laws and access to water. Buying from reputable breeders helps you obtain healthy animals with good, traceable pedigrees. You want to start your operation with the best stock available, and that is worth a little extra time and money.
With planning, you can increase the health of your livestock by decreasing the number of parasites they carry. While the best operations have at least six pastures in their rotation, even a few pastures can decrease the parasite population.
Bengston, Mark. Personal Interview. Oct 3, 2018
Fulcher, Jodey. Personal Interview. Oct 3, 2018
Parasite Control with Multispecies and Rotational Grazing. Dr. Hart, Steve. https://kerrcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/hart_multispp_presentation.pdf Accessed Oct 1, 2018
Originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.