our Shropshire sheep adventure
When we first heard of the idea of using sheep to manage grass in our trees, we were excited about the idea of a green alternative to herbicides and lawn mowers. After a lot of research, we settled on Groverman bred Shropshires, for being truest to the breed standard. A working sheep, if you will. We aren't looking for leggy show sheep on our farm.
After four years of owning sheep, we've learned it isn't a perfect solution. The sheep won't eat everything. That shouldn't be surprising, they're fussy eaters, and that's why they don't eat Christmas trees. They aren't as friendly as we're used to for farm animals- they definitely see humans as predators. And they take a lot of time to take care of.
They have to be rotated through new paddocks every 2-4 days. This means a significant investment in material (portable electric fencing) and time (moving their paddocks and shelter). Sheep that aren't moved onto fresh grass will get parasites. If they run low on grass, they might start to think trees look tasty. And that ruins the whole point of grazing sheep in Christmas trees.
regenerative agriculture models
Regenerative agriculture relies on eco-system approaches to improving local environments. Think of the farm as an ecosystem- you want to create as close to a self-sustaining system as you can, without relying on chemical inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, etc). We aren't there yet, but our sheep are getting us closer.
But really, isn’t using fewer inputs, retaining valuable biodiversity, and improving soil quality a win for everyone?
A few things to consider: every time someone cuts a tree down and takes it home, they're removing carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other vital elements from our farm. That's the nature of farming: you turn soil and water into a useful product that goes elsewhere. So it's our job, as farmers, to build nutrients back up as much as we can.
Grazing animals are helpful for a large number of reasons.
It seems pretty self-explanatory, but as sheep walk through the land, they also poop on it. This spreads natural fertilizer all over the farm. Their droppings from the barn get composted down with extra tree parts to turn into the compost we mulch trees with.
With sheep, we're mainly talking about plants. Our sheep eat a variety of weeds that grown in the trees, including some that are resistant to herbicides. It's pretty cool that there's a natural solution to a man-made problem. Many large-scale restoration projects use goats, sheep, or cattle to graze out problem plants. We happen to use Shropshire sheep because they are particularly well-suited to grazing without damaging tree crops.
This is a complicated topic, with a very simplistic overview here: as grazing animals take off the top of plants, the plants grow more root mass in addition to fresh plant growth. This traps more carbon underground. This is why grazed perennial grasslands have a lot of promise for carbon storage.
a quick note on herbicides
We know, better than a lot of people, the dangers of herbicides and other pesticides. They're strong chemicals designed to kill organic matter. Ideally, we wouldn't use them. So why do we?
Vermont has an increasing number of invasive species. Some of them, like japanese knotweed, will choke out all other vegetation and are incredibly difficult to kill. Bittersweet winds around tree trunks and tightens, choking the host tree until it dies. Both respond to cutting, grazing, or pulling by putting out new, vigorous growth.Our current thinking is that it is preferable to treat these issues with a known solution then it is to let invasive plants overrun the farm.
Are sheep a good idea for Christmas tree growers?
Ultimately, the answer to this has to do with your goals as grower. Are you looking for the easiest way to grow beautiful trees as a new farmer? Sheep aren't going to be your best choice. Are you looking to farm without having twice-daily commitments, 365 days a year? Sheep aren't for you. Do you not have a few thousand dollars set aside for start-up costs in your weed control program? You might want to look into other options.
Are you constantly trying new things in hopes of finding a better way? Give sheep a try.
Do you want to have a regenerative farm? Sheep could be the answer you're looking for.
Are you intrigued by the idea of getting more than one crop off of a single field? Sheep provide fiber and meat in addition to your Christmas tree crop.
You're going to have to decided for yourself. Sheep are a big investment in time and money. So far, the benefits have outweighed the costs for us.
Want to support our sheep project? You can buy yarn at our online store.