Grazing Weeds with Sheep
It is a well-known fact that cows and horses favor grasses, while sheep and goats tend to prefer leafy forbs, including most species of invasive weeds. When you hear about using livestock as a tool to control invasive weeds, it usually involves using sheep and goats to graze the weeds. The most unique part of our work is that we emphasized using horses to trample weeds--and more importantly--to manipulate the soil surface to favor germination of new grasses and other non-weedy forage plants. However, since we knew that sheep and goats favored weeds so much, it seemed logical to raise a few dedicated weed eaters.
For our community weed control project, we used grant funds to purchase fencing supplies. The livestock and supplementary feed were paid for by individuals in the program. We bottle-fed six bum lambs and later acquired two goats to add to our weed-eating flock. One concern I had is that projects like this tend to spend a lot of money to prove what is already well-known, that sheep and goats eat weeds. Then people get busy with their lives and the program fades out, but the weeds keep growing.
I was determined that our project would not suffer the same fate, that it would keep growing, to establish a sustainable program for grazing the weedy lots around our little town. Yet, here I am three years later writing the epitaph for our sheep and goats project. We learned a lot about sheep and goats and grazing weeds, but ultimately ran out of time to deal with it, just like everyone else. The key difference is that we have continued to expand our program of weed control with the horses. Here is a summary of our lessons learned with sheep and goats:
- Weed Preferences: When we weaned our lambs off the bottle and turned them loose on tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), that's all they wanted to eat. They selectively ate the weeds and hardly touched the grasses at all. Of course the weeds grew back from the roots, but then they had to compete with all the taller grass. Over time this weakens and kills out the weeds.
However, after keeping some of our sheep over the winter and feeding them hay, it was difficult to train them back to eating the weeds. Presumably the miroflora in their digestive systems adapted to alfalfa and grass, while losing preference for weeds. We fenced them into heavily weed-infested plots in an attempt to retrain them to the weeds, but at best they seemed to eat the grass and weeds about equally. That might be okay, but not as desirable as when they just ate the weeds.
- Goats: For one year our project included two male pigmy goats. One of the goats was never neutered, and it absolutely stank. The other goat didn't smell much at all, but it had a driving homing instinct to return to its former owner (who fed it donuts). It could escape from just about any fence we put it in. While educational, we really didn't enjoy the goats and we finally butchered them both.
- Infrastructure: Sheep and goats require lots of infrastructure to keep them in and neighborhood dogs out. Throughout our project the fencing always cost more than the value of the sheep it contained.
With the aid of grant funds we purchased 300 feet of ElectroNet fencing from Premier1 and used it with a solar fence charger. The ElectroNet fencing was very effective, just time-consuming to move around in our terrain of dry, rocky slopes or occasionally brushy pastures. Much of the town still has old sheep wire fences in place, at least on one or two sides of pastures, so we used those where ever possible to make bigger pastures with less work.
Through the winter we kept the sheep at home in an ElectroNet pen, feeding them hay on barren ground that needed more organic matter in the soil. (Horses are more effective at working the organic matter into the soil.) When the charging system wasn't working properly the sheep became increasingly bold pushing on the fence, until they just hopped right over it. By the time we fixed the fence so it was properly charged, the sheep knew they could jump over it any time they wanted to. We could no longer use the ElectroNet fencing unless we started over with new bum lambs.
What we really needed was a permanently-fenced enclosure where we could keep a flock of sheep through the winters without worrying about fence maintenance. We spent $500 of grant money and more than $500 of our own money to build a small, but first-class winter pasture for the sheep. A neighborhood dog still got into the pasture and fatally wounded one of the sheep.
- Economics: The bum lambs only cost $5 each, but these were all runts and culls, small and/or unbreedable. We spent about $35 per lamb for milk replacer and bottle fed them several times daily for six weeks. After all that work, and after moving fences all summer, the going price at the sale ring in the fall was less than $50 each. We decided it would be far more economical to butcher the lambs as needed for our own use than to sell them. To make the program economically sustainable I think we would have needed a breedable flock of specialty sheep, so that the off-spring and possibly the wool could be marketed at a profit. As mentioned above, the fencing always cost more than the value of the sheep it contained.
Concluding Thoughts: Sheep and goats definitely eat weeds, but these animals are not a practical method of weed control for most landowners, unless the necessary infrastructure (and lots of it) is already in place.
Nevertheless, weed control with livestock is still viable--if you can overcome the problem of perception. People assume that to control weeds with livestock you must get animals like sheep and goats that will EAT the weeds. But sheep and goats can eat every weed and still fail to trample in the critical seeds and organic matter needed to stimulate desirable range plants. The important point is to focus on the plants you want, more than the plants you don't want.
Our work with horses indicates that it is not neccessary to eat the weeds at all. It is just as good to trample them down, and even more important to trample organic matter and seeds into the soil to stimulate desirable range plants to better compete with the weeds.
Grazing Weeds with Sheep
-The Full Story-
In 1998-2000 the Concerned Citizens of Pony received three "Educator Team Grants" from the Alternative Energy Resources Organization totaling $2,100 to involve local kids in sustainable agriculture. The focus of our projects is on weed control using trampling with horses and grazing with sheep. Grant funds covered the capital costs of buying, building, and moving fences for the projects. The cost of the animals and feed was covered by participants in the project.
In April of 1999 participants in the sheep grazing project obtained seven bum lambs from the Montana State University Experiment Station at Red Bluff for $5 each. The lambs were one or two days old when we got them, and one died almost immediately. We bought milk replacer formula and bottle fed the remaining lambs for about six weeks until they were weaned and eating weeds.
During the summer we moved the sheep through several tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) patches around town. With the aid of grant funds we purchased 300 feet of ElectroNet fencing from Premier1 and used it with a solar fence charger we bought for the horse project. The ElectroNet fencing is very effective at keeping the sheep in and dogs out.
We already knew that sheep ate weeds, but we had no idea how voracious their appetite was! The sheep selected most of the weeds in each pasture, allowing light to better reach the grasses. They ate very little of the grass. The biggest problem we ran into was that the sheep demolished the weeds so quickly that we had to move the fences around a lot. Premier1 claims that it only takes a matter of minutes to set up the ElectroNet fencing, and that is true on flat ground with good soil, but all of our test sites were on steep, rocky ground. Moving 300' of fence and the charger took one adult and two kids at least two hours per move.
We were very enthusiastic about establishing a long-term weeds control program in this community with sheep, but the greatest obstacles towards making this project truly sustainable were time and money. Later in the season we increased the size of the sheep pens by moving the critters to parts of town where there was permanent sheep fencing already in place. We were able to utilize the existing infrastructure for two or three sides of the pens and fill in the open sides with the ElectroNet fencing. By making bigger pastures we only had to move fence about every third week, instead of weekly.
To make the weeds grazing project more time sustainable we concluded we would need to establish permanent fences all the way around the pastures so that moving the sheep would be as easy as herding them out of one pasture and into another.
To achieve a truly successful long-term weeds control project we would have to make the sheep project financially sustainable as well. The bum lambs only cost $5 each, but these were all runts and culls, small and/or unbreedable. We spent about $35 per lamb for milk replacer and bottle fed them several times daily for six weeks. After all that work, and after moving fences all summer, the going price at the sale ring in the fall was less than $50 each. We decided it would be far more economical to butcher the lambs for our own use than to sell them.
Three of the lambs were butchered in the fall. The other three were kept over winter to aid with reclamation projects on disturbed soils. Grass seed was spread on the ground, and alfalfa hay was fed to the sheep in a different spot each day. The sheep picked through the hay, taking what they wanted and scattering the rest to protect the seeds. On warm winter days the ground thawed and the sheep pushed the seeds into the soil with their hooves. After comparing those plots to the plots worked by the horses, we concluded that horses were more effective at manipulating the soil.
The 1999 project also included two male pigmy goats. One of the goats was never neutered, and it absolutely stank. The other goat didn't smell much at all, but it had a driving homing instinct to return to its former owner (who fed it donuts). It could escape from just about any fence we put it in. We finally butchered them both.
Eventually the sheep out-grew the portable electric fence, so they were able to jump over it at will. Therefore, through the summer of 2000, we kept the sheep in a permanently fenced tansy patch north of town. There was much more tansy than sheep in the pasture, however, so it was hard to tell at times whether or not they were really making a difference. Nevertheless, the blooms were almost completely eliminated within the pasture, so that was significant.
Shearing the sheep proved to be another maintenance challenge. We tried to link up with other sheep producers in the area so that we could get our animals sheared at the same time as theirs. However, the shearing dates came and went two years in a row, and we were never included in the process. Our sheep were more wool than meat! In desperation, we sheared one of our sheep with a pair of scissors. Besides taking hours to do a job that should take minutes, that sheep was an embarrassment for months until its wool coat evened out a little.
We finally bought a pair of sheep shears off the internet, but the blades were incredibly dull, so it still took three hours to shear one sheep. Then I bought some new blades, with the intent to get the original set sharpened for back-up. The new blades helped, but it still took more than an hour to shear one sheep. Then we realized that the sheep shears were not sheep shears after all, but horse clippers. I think the electric motor was about dead by the time we finished our little flock. Another learning experience, I guess!
Still, we had dreams of figuring out the sheep business and eventually breeding our own stock. From the original flock of six lambs only the black-faced Petunia was breedable. Black-faced lambs are usually culled because they tend to be smarter at escaping... a very true prediction! We purchased a ram (Martin) from a girl in 4-H, with the hope of breeding Petunia, but she never did become pregnant. Petunia later died after being severely wounded by a neighborhood dog that crawled under our very expensive "dog-proof" fence.
We were having doubts about our ability to sustain the sheep program already, and that event just helped us to acknowledge that we should terminate the sheep project, and focus all our efforts into weeds control with the horses.
The horses required much less fencing than sheep or goats, and were more effective for our purposes of trampling weeds and manipulating the soil surface to favor germination of desirable range plants. Acquiring horses of our own in the spring of 2001 meant that we were more directly involved with that part of the program anyway, and had less time available to deal with the sheep.
Through the summer of 2001 our neighbors kept Martin and Moe, our last remaining sheep, in their pasture and tansy patch, partly to eat the weeds, but also to provide company for their horse. We butchered Moe in the fall and Martin a year later.
Links to Notable Sheep Sites
Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company
Here is an innovative sheep operation, raising hormone free and predator-friendly lamb and wool products near Belgrade, Montana. The Thirteen Mile Farm is a certified predator-friendly operation because they do not kill any coyotes, bears, or other predators that prey on their livestock. Losses to predators account for only a few percent of the total losses on most ranches. Weather and accidents are much bigger problems.
Ranchers Becky Weed and Dave Tyler make their operation profitable through a value-added approach. They get a higher price for their lamb meat because the animals are range-fed without hormones or antibiotics, and because of the predator-friendly status.
Weed and Tyler also sell tanned skins, woven blankets and locally-made sweaters, all from the hides and wool off their own farm. For more information be sure to check out the Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company website.
Innovative Uses for Wool
Raw wool is a useful soil amendment. It can be mixed with soil or used as a mulch for its water holding capability, or laid out in long snake-like rolls for erosion control. Wool contains 50% carbon, 17% nitrogen, and 4% sulfur, plus phosphorus, protein, lysine, methionine, arginine, and keratin. 1.1 pounds of wool is the equivalent of 1 pound of chemical nitrogen, but in an organic, usable form. Super fine wools with 12-18 crimps per inch can break down within a single season making the nutrients available to plants. Super fine wools bind with soil particles and hold up to three times their volume in water, useful to capture and hold moisture longer through the growing season.
Coarse wool (thicker, usually with 4-11 crimps per inch) also breaks down into useful plant nutrients, but it doesn't bind to the soil particles as well and the process of decay takes longer. For innovative garden and erosion control products from wool be sure to check out the source of this information: Eweniquely Organic Wool Products
Other Good Sheep Links
Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association
Continue with Weed Control by Trampling with Horses