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Sheep in the Vines in Northern California

11 December 2015

Mendocino County, Northern California is home to the majority of American organic and eco-friendly vineyards. The need to cut the use of fossil fuels, pesticides and herbicides has prompted a number of wineries to use sheep as a multi-level, environmentally sustainable management tool, writes John Wilkes.

Near the town of Ukiah, some 3,000 acres of vines are under the supervision of Robert and Jaime Irwin’s Kaos Sheep Outfit.

Their business was established in 2010 and is based near Clear Lake. At the start Robert also sheared 30,000 sheep a year on the West coast – which helped provide their start-up funds: “Back then we sheared all day and moved sheep all night.”

Starting with just 50 ewes, this third-generation sheep farmer now runs 1,000 head of improving genetic Corriedale, Suffolk and Rambouillet ewes. The goal is for another 1,000 ewes on the ground to keep up with demand. Homebred Suffolk rams are the preferred sires across the Kaos flock.

Seasonally, the Irwins net $0.16 per head/day on a contract grazing basis, managing 3,000 feeder lambs belonging to Ryan Mahoney of Emigh Livestock, Rio Vista, CA.

The main focus in the vineyards is to keep them clear of naturally occurring vegetation. Crops are purposefully planted between rows of vines including mixes of oats, vetches, peas and beans to fix nitrogen and brassicas, like mustard, to help with controlling harmful soil-borne nematodes.

Some naturally occurring plants are welcome, though - Robert Irwin commented: “Red Stem Filaree provides us with high quality sheep forage in the fall. The ewes love it.”

Jess Arnsteen, Manager of Edible Ecosystems with 300 acres of vines at Parducci Wine Estates in Ukiah, commented: “The sheep grazing is saving us two tractor passes trimming grass in February and May – at $35/acre, it makes sense.”

Mr Arnsteen continued: “I’m a firm believer in using sheep to complement the organic regime here at Parducci.”

An innovative aspect of Kaos Sheep’s vineyard work – leaf pulling – involves removing excess basal leaves from around the ripening grapes prior to harvest. This exposes hidden fruit to sunlight and reduces areas likely to harbour crop pests and disease.

Sheep also remove unwanted suckers and new shoots that all affect grape quality. The goal is for leaves to be pulled from the canopy on the shaded side of the plant. Fortunately this is where the animals naturally congregate to get away from the sun.

The process is not just about letting sheep run amok amongst the vines – designated row orientation and spacing is all considered. Mobs of 300 ewes run over electric-fenced, three-acre blocks of vines for about two days while staff monitor the sheep.

When the flock turn their attention to eating young grapes they are moved to a fresh area to start consuming more leaves. Ewes are moved out of the vineyard at night.

Leaf pulling, traditionally done by hand, costs $300 per acre. The work done by the sheep removes far more green material – at $65 an acre it represents a big saving for the wineries.

Robert Irwin explained: “When we first tried this, neighbouring vineyard managers were wary that sheep would eat the grapes, but they didn’t and the idea is becoming popular.”

Such is the Irwins' belief in their work, they are using a government SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant to quantify the environmental and economic effects that targeted sheep vineyard grazing can achieve.

Aspects of grape production, general soil health, presence of Virginia creeper leafhopper and vineyard management have been duly monitored and compared to that of sheep-free areas. The results are promising and soon to be published.

The ewes lamb in October/November on alfalfa fields. When lambs are approximately two months old, on or around January 1st, the flock is moved to the vineyards. They stay until bud break around April 1st – a big date on every winery’s calendar. Then sheep are removed to allow tractor-focused vine work and importantly eliminate the temptation to eat the young buds.

At this stage, the goal is for 50 per cent of the lamb crop – with a current weaned lambing percentage of just over 130 per cent – to go straight to Superior Farms facility in Dixon, CA. All lamb is contracted to this company with the aim of premium, 60-70lb carcasses. The remaining lambs are moved to nearby Eagle Creek Ranch for a short grass finish.

The weaned ewes provide another income stream by readily tackling scrub and undergrowth – grazing sites not easily maintained by landowners. The risk of fire is a reality in Northern California and sheep are now increasingly in demand, for a fee in clearing this potential fire-hazard material.

Mr Irwin stated: “This keeps the sheep occupied at a time of year when it’s hard for us to find places to run them. They then head back to the vineyards around May 1st to leaf pull and go to the rams when they’re being flushed on all that greenery.”

Alongside vineyards in the locale, Kaos sheep run over 500 acres of walnut groves, 1,000 acres of wheat stubble and 800 acres of alfalfa. In 800 acres of pear orchards sheep provide a unique service for Ukiah’s commercial fruit growers – a cost-effective means of controlling a significant pest, the codling moth.

This fruit spoiling grub lives part of its life cycle in discarded fruit left on the ground post-harvest. The sheep readily clear all this material along with the grass. This enabled growers to reduce the need to use a pheromone trap on each fruit-bearing tree; only one in three trees now needs a trap – a significant saving.

Using sheep for vineyard and orchard management is evolving and thriving in Northern California. When asked about the significance of the company name Mr Irwin declared: “Our stated goal is about bringing some order to all the craziness that can happen when you’re working with nature – Kaos seemed a good way to describe that.”

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.