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Grazing Sheep in Perennial Crop Systems

“Grazing Sheep in Perennial Crop Systems” was a popular workshop at EcoFarm 2019 that featured Paicines Ranch vineyard manager Kelly Mulville and Nathan Stuart, shepherd at Tablas Creek Vineyard, who both touted the benefits of sheep grazing for managing ecosystem health and increasing profitability in perennial systems. Some of the benefits of sheep grazing that Stuart described include eradicating unwanted weeds like mustards to leave room for clover and other desired vegetation, and the creation of manure that sequesters carbon into the soil, increasing soil health and increasing the moisture content.“We hold more water in our soil than we could ever store in a tank. Investing in soil is crucial,” Stuart told the audience.

We hold more water in our soil than we could ever store in a tank. Investing in soil is crucial.

Stuart explained that sheep grazing isn’t a big money maker itself, but the benefits to the land and the crops growing there, as well as the savings on weeding and suckering labor plus lack of tractor repairs make it a valuable endeavor.

Tablas Creek does sell butchered lamb to restaurants but Stuart told the audience that it’s more of a marketing tactic. “I get the foot in the door at restaurants and then Tablas Creek can get the wine in. They do a pairing of the lamb and the wine which people get excited about,” he said. He currently sells lamb to restaurants for nine dollars per pound. He’s interested in selling hides as well, but said that for now he hasn’t figured out how to make it profitable.

Grazing sheep in the vineyard does present some challenges, Stuart explained. Without proper management, sheep can overgraze, impact soil, and damage irrigation equipment. He stressed the importance of proper fencing to keep sheep from grazing where they shouldn’t and offered tips on how to manage an effective fencing system.

Kelly Mulville has been conducting grazing experiments to improve soil health on vineyards in Arizona, Australia, and California. He’s a proponent of designing vineyards to facilitate grazing. Sally Calhoun, owner of Paicines Ranch near Hollister, California, heard Mulville present these ideas at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference. She approached Mulville and asked him to help design a vineyard at her ranch. Mulville has been managing the vineyard ever since.

It’s common practice when starting a vineyard to rip everything out of the ground and leave the land barren for a while. But Mulville took a more holistic approach, applying a light layer of compost and running cattle. “We have a wonderful history in this country of grazing animals, one we were able to wipe out pretty quickly,” said Mulville as he showed the audience an image of bison on the American plains.

“We’re trying to build soil health and biodiversity and increase profitability,” explained Mulville. Building soil health with sheep grazing means mimicking nature: grazing animals tend to stay in tight groups to keep safe from predators. During his research, Mulville confirmed that when sheep are concentrated in one area, the soil becomes much healthier than if the sheep are not concentrated in one area. Mulville’s findings indicate that sheep urine increases soil productivity exponentially. He has found that the organic matter on Paicines Ranch is increasing every year, as is the soil’s water holding capacity. Mulville informed the audience that,“the need for irrigation in the vineyard decreased by 90%.”

the need for irrigation in the vineyard decreased by 90%

He encourages anyone interested in holistic vineyard management to visit Paicines Ranch to see all the work being done and to get more sheep grazing tips.

To hear more from sheep grazing experts Kelly Mulville and Nathan Stuart, download the audio recording of this workshop and others from EcoFarm Conference 2019.