When Bart Gilmer of Falcon Ridge Farm married his wife, Becky, his father-in-law not only gave his daughter away, but he also gave the couple a wedding gift of four sheep. With these four wooly animals, the young couple started a petting zoo as part of their farm events throughout the year.
The rural farm in Hardeman County, Tennessee, hosts birthday parties, Easter Egg Hunts, Fall Festivals, and other events throughout the year. Of course, these special occasions require only a small amount of time for the animals. And sheep need feeding whether they’re part of the entertainment or not. So while they’re off duty, the sheep earn their keep by keeping overgrown grass in check and clearing pasture land.
“I use sheep instead of goats to eat grass,” says Gilmer. “With sheep, it’s always four feet on the ground. Of course, they may reach up and nibble leaves, but mostly, they eat grass and low weeds. A goat will eat vines, the bark on a tree, and can clean up a kudzu patch. Goats provide a need, but the sheep will focus on clearing the grass.”
When Nancy and Kevin Corey moved to Tennessee and started Corey Ippolito Winery in Blountville, they decided to adapt a method of mowing grass seen in California. Why not let the sheep keep the grass contained in their vineyards and orchards?
“We allow the sheep to graze underneath the vines and between the rows,” says Nancy. “After trial and error of using the sheep as mowing machines, we have a better system of grass and weed control. After the harvest season, the sheep are turned into the fields for approximately two months. They eat the weeds and grass and remove leaves from plants they can reach.” When the lambing season arrives, the sheep are taken out of the fields. In rural areas, coyotes and neighborhood dogs pose a threat to the sheep. By using electric fencing, they keep the sheep in and predators out. The Corey’s sheep are also protected by Great Pyrenees dogs that stay in the field with the animals.
“There are many benefits to using sheep to mow grass and weeds,” says Nancy. “It reduces fuel costs and saves time from regular mowing. Sheep add fertilizer to the ground, which enriches the soil.” Always aware of making the planet a cleaner place to live, this practice cuts down on emissions that a mower puts out.
As this is an experimental approach to using sheep, the Coreys partnered with the USDA through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). One purpose of NRCS conservationists is to provide technical expertise and conservation planning for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. Making improvement to the land is a top priority of the organization.
Using sheep to mow the grass and eradicate weeds has been used for generations and has been a common practice in other counties. For the typical landowner, it’s cost effective, eliminates the need for hired labor, and benefits soil health. Sheep serve as a multi-tool machine, they trim the grass, aerate soil with their hooves, and they’re natural fertilizers.
"Although sheep do not run on gasoline and do not require oil changes, they are not maintenance-free,” says Gilmer. “Like any animals, you must provide shelter, health care, and fencing. However, at Falcon Ridge Farm we’ve found that sheep are a sustainable alternative to using mowers for cutting grass.”
“Before changing to using sheep instead of a gas mower, there are challenges you must address,” says Corey. “Not all dogs mix well with sheep. We have Great Pyrenees and they work well together.”
If net electric fencing is used, dogs must respect the boundary. Net fencing has drawbacks — it doesn’t provide adequate protection from predators. The homeowner must be nearby if the fencing borders a busy road, as the sheep may venture out. Make sure to test the electrical charge before allowing the sheep to go into the enclosure.
Another problem in yards or pastures is toxic chemicals. Often found in the form of pesticides and herbicides, they can be dangerous to sheep and livestock. Avoid using chemicals on your pastures to keep your flock healthy.
Sheep also require vaccination, hoof trimming, deworming, and shearing — unless hair sheep. Many shepherds enjoy the lower maintenance hair sheep while still getting the benefits of having these “mini mowers” in their pastures.
Be sure to check your local livestock laws and regulations before you purchasing any animals. Some of neighbors will think you’re very creative, while others might find it a nuisance.
All sheep eat grass, right? However, some require less maintenance and care than others.
• Katahdin: These “hair sheep” are low maintenance, do not produce fleece or require shearing. They’re docile, bred for utility and for production in a variety of management systems.
• Jacob: The Jacob is an old British breed, known for their black and white fleece and prominent horns. Both males and females have horns — two, four, and occasionally six.
• Babydolls: Small size makes them desired “weeders” in orchards and vineyards, and they are not aggressive. They do need to be sheared.
• Barbados Blackbelly: Adapts to a widespread environment, high reproductive rate, and they are a hair breed, shedding in the spring.
Aside from the monetary savings, there’s something to be said for the feeling a flock of sheep quietly grazing on a hillside invokes. It helps bring the owner that much closer to self-sufficiency, and without all the noise of a machine mower.
It was reported in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson was riding in one of the White House automobiles through the country with Dr. Grayson, a personal friend. Seeing some sheep, the President remarked that he would like to see sheep at the White House, and that Mrs. Wilson would also enjoy it. Soon a flock of sheep arrived. Wanting to be a model family and do their part for the war effort, the White House wool brought $52,000 for the Red Cross.
Carolyn Tomlin is a freelance writer based in Jackson, Tennessee, and she contributes to several publications. She is the co-author of The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister available on Amazon and Kindle.
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