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Oregon Sheep Ranchers Flock to Soil Health

Pete Wahl HeaderPete Wahl and his siblings started out as ranchers. Today, they run a salad bar.

It started when they sold the tractor two years ago. With it went the tillage equipment and the seed drill. You can’t very well farm without those. At least that’s what they thought.

Pete and the rest of the Wahl family have embraced a soil-centric idea. Sheep don’t need more acres to graze, they need more and better food on the acres they’ve got. The realization has led to major changes on the operation.

Cliffside salad bar

Wahl Ranch occupies a stunning stretch of Oregon’s coast. Sheep graze atop cliffs overlooking the union of the Elk River and Pacific Ocean. In the southern distance, Humbug Mountain broods in chilly sea spray.

“Here, try this,” Pete says.

His rough hand presents a runty sprig of green shoots and bluish flowers with a cherry-red bulb at the base. Radish.

He gestures in a big circle beneath our feet. “All of this is orchard and rye grass, and there’s plantain and chicory. That yellow flower back there is turnip.” 

As he names each plant, he plucks a specimen and occasionally samples one. He assembles a bouquet of greens that would impress any salad lover, not least of all the sheep. The idea is a diverse cover crop that keeps soil covered and supports microbial life.

To meet their flock’s nutritional needs and reduce costs, the Wahls broadcast a cover crop seed mix onto their pastures. They rely on hoof action from the sheep to work seeds into the soil rather than pay tillage costs and disturb the soil.

The Wahl’s sheep have never been healthier.

“That was the real stunner, the change in health,” Pete says. “It isn’t a change in genetics…you can’t change that in 12 months, but the animal health changed that quickly. And the consumption of antibiotics and worm medicines dropped.”

But diverse forage is only part of the equation. The Wahls have thousands of mouths to feed, and that means if the sheep are going to eat, they’ve got to keep moving.

A mobile flock

Decades ago, livestock ranged across the entire ranch, a practice called “set stocking.” The Wahls changed many years ago to giving each herd a few acres and moving them from one small pasture to another every 3 to 7 days. This allows grass to grow back between grazing periods.

Overgrazing results when sheep aren’t moved often enough or at all. This leads to plant stress, depleted soil and reduced livestock forage.

Today, the Wahls move the sheep every day and use even smaller pastures. The practice allows the ranch to support far more animals than in earlier years, including when they moved every few days.

With nothing but a four wheeler and portable electric fencing, the Wahls move each herd every day. They set the pasture size according to weather and forage conditions—as small as half-an-acre for 500-1,000 sheep.  By focusing on soil health, keeping the pastures small and moving the sheep daily, it’s possible to provide significantly more grass on fewer acres. 

“If you’d have told me five years ago you can run 930 sheep on 19 acres for a month, I’d say ‘that guy’s been drinking’,” Pete says. “But that’s what we’re doing.”

After two years of cover crops and daily herd movement, progress has been made towards the central goal on Wahl Ranch—soil health.

Above and below

When animals graze, they consume nutrients taken up by the plant from the soil. In order to regrow, plants need more nutrients. When we ask plants to regrow more than the soil has nutrients to support, soil becomes depleted and plants wither. Usually, the solution is more fertilizer.

The Wahls have skipped their last six urea fertilizer applications. They continue to use other soil supplements such as compost. Despite the fertilizer reduction, they grow much more grass than is eaten.

“We’ve gone two full years without fertilizer. We’re not short of feed, we’re running more sheep and they’re healthier,” Pete says.

The pastures are allowed to rest for much longer periods. That extra time to grow means roots dig deeper, accessing more nutrients and water than average pasture grasses. Combine that with the added organic matter from the cover crop and you’re kicking your soil’s productivity into high gear.

“It sounds like such a nonsense story, but when you see the numbers right in front of you, it’s not nonsense,” Pete says. “This whole deal here, it’s less inputs and an increase in production. Where else can you get that?”

Who are the Wahls​

The Wahls have been caring for their piece of paradise since 1874. As the fifth generation begins to have a hand in stewardship, family remains central to their operation.

They consistently take initiative to protect all the resources on their land, and have frequently worked with conservation agencies such as Curry County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Curry Watershed Council and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

To learn more about how NRCS can help develop a conservation plan for your land, visit our website at www.or.nrcs.usda.gov. View our interactive map to discover conservation opportunities in Oregon near you. 

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