Integration of Intensive Sheep Grazing with a Vineyard/Orchard Operation

Final Report for FNC99-267

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Our 130 acre family operated farm is located in the hill region of west central Minnesota in Ottertail County. Our farm consists of approximately 45 acres of native grass pastures with the remainder of the land forested with mixed hard and soft wood trees. A 100 ewe flock of Polypay/East Friesian/Dorper mix is rotationally grazed through the fenced pastures (~25 acres) during the growing season. A one half acre test vineyard which is in its 5th year of production is producing grape quantities which correspond to a production level of return of ~$3000/acre. The land in this region is considered highly erodible (sandy/loam) and contains numerous ponds, wetlands and lakes. The land is suited well for grazing and viticulture. The vineyard/orchard would be positioned in the fenced pasture on gently rolling hillsides with a southern exposure.

Previous sustainable projects that we have been involved with include:
1) Development of a half acre test vineyard to determine which varieties of wine quality grapes are best suited for this region, (Minnesota Sustainable Agriculture Grant, 1994-1997)
2) South African Dorper Sheep study was also conducted to measure the economic profitability of this particular species of sheep in a grassed based pasture operation such as we are developing (SARE grant 1997-1998).

The three main goals of this project are 1) to establish a vineyard/orchard (~1400 vines/80 trees) within the pasture currently in use for grazing the sheep, 2) to assess the benefits/drawbacks associated with grazing sheep in a vineyard/orchard and 3) to assess the economic/quality of life benefits vs. environmental impact on the land.

As specified in our proposal, the planting of vines would be spread out over three years (~500 vines planted/year) due to time/labor constraints on our part and to allow modification of planting/trellising practices to enhance survivability.

During the first year of this grant 500 vines were planted (100 Frontenac and 400 Fock vines) in the Northern half of the pasture area as well as 80 apple trees (5-7 feet tall – five different varieties) as described in the proposal. No pear trees were planted due to a distinct lack of cold hardy varieties suited for this area. Vines and trees were planted in the spring of 2000 with a “growth tube” (36 inches tall for vines, 42 inches tall for trees) anchored in place over the vines with a fiberglass or bamboo stake (1/4 inch diameter). The growth tubes were used to increase the rates of vine growth and to protect young vines from sheep when they were allowed to graze in the vineyard. Growth tubes were left on the vines over winter. Fruit trees (mostly apple and few cherry) of a number of different varieties were planted along the central alleyway that leads out to the pasture. This alley divides the pasture/vineyard area into near equal halves both with good Southern exposure. Orchard trees were planted close to the alley fence and an electric fence erected on the pasture side to prevent sheep access to the trees. Once suitable grass growth had occurred in the vineyard, ewes with lambs were allowed to graze sections of the vineyard ad lib for various periods of time. After each grazing day a walk through the vineyard area was conducted to assess the sheep damage to the vines. Grass analysis will be performed during the third year of the grant to assess any potential impact of vine growth on pasture quality. No analysis was done the first or second year due to the small amount of vine growth that occurs during the initial years of grapevine growth.

During the second year of the grant (spring/summer 2001), 500 additional vines (all Foch variety) were planted in the Southern section of the pasture and enclosed with tubes supported with thicker and longer bamboo stakes (36 inches tall growth tubes and ½ inch diameter stakes). Winter damage was assessed in the northern vineyard and in the orchard/alley. The trellis system was erected in the Northern Vineyard and training of the year old vines to the trellis was initiated. Grazing of both the Northern and Southern vineyards was carried out throughout the grazing season into the fall of 2001/winter of 2002. Additional changes include removal of growth tubes from ½ of the planted vines to ascertain if the growth tubes inhibit hardening off of the canes and predispose the vines to more winter kill.

Year 1 Results: (2000 growing season)
100 Frontenac vines and 400 Foch vines were planted in the spring of 2000. ~100% of vines took root and started to grow. In the early fall of 2000 and spring of 2001 viability was assessed with the following results:
- Frontenac winter kill loss – none
- Frontenac Anthracnos loss – 20 vines dead (20%)
- Frontenac loss due to grazing – even though grazing would frequently result in 10-15% of the vines being damaged in some way due to grazing pressure, almost all damage vines re-grew during the remainder of the season. Whether this damaged and the limited growth imposed by it predisposed the vines to winter kill is not measurable at this time.

- Foch winter kill loss – 145 vines (36%)
- Foch Anthracnos loss – none (Foch are engineered to be more resistant to Anthracnos)

Dry root fruit trees (8 cherry and 72 apple) were planted in the spring of 2000. six apple trees never budded out. In the spring of 2001 viability was assessed with the following results:
- Cherry tree loss – none (0%)
- Apple tree winter kill loss – 9 dead (12%), 36 damaged but re-growing from root suckers (50%)

Year 2 results: (2001 growing season)
The loss of vines so far planted due to winter kill during the second winter will have to wait until spring 2002 to be assessed and will be reported in the final grant report submitted next December/January.

Year 3 Results: (2002 growing season)
No winter kill of the vines occurred as a result of the winter of 2001-2001. Fall preparation included removing the growth tubes prior to the onset of winter which may have allowed the vines to “hardened off” to a greater extent than the previous years. Other contributing factors that increased winter survival were the exceptionally mild winter of 2001/2002. However we continue to feel that growth tubes should be removed in the fall to challenge the vines to increase the wood content of the canes.

In the spring of 2002 we planted the remaining 400 Foch vines and continued to work on the trellis system. We grazed ewes and lambs in the vineyard from May through August 1st. Two rows of vines covered with growth tubes were grazed per day using Electonet fence to control access. Each day the fence was moved and fresh grass/vines made available to the sheep with good success. Vine damage was minimal (1-2 vines out of 40-50). In the fall, once the vines were dormant the entire vineyard was opened up to the sheep for grazing with no apparent damage.

Those vines planted during the 2000 season continue to grow well and are attached to the first wire of the trellis system (4 ft height). These vines will be trained to get up to 6 ft high wire before they are allowed to spread out and start bearing fruit (first harvest is expected in fall of 2004).

Apple trees continue to grow slowly an some are bearing fruit, 3-7 apples of small size. No further loss due to winter kill has been observed and the sheep have not damaged the trees in any way.

There were no negative environmental effects of this project observed. Pasture growth was vigorous both in and around the vines and in the regions between the rows of vines. At present there has been no economic return in terms of salable quantities of 4-5 years for the apple trees this is to be expected. Neighbor interest and curiosity regarding the project has been one positive impact and hopefully will carry over into sales of the final product (once we have a product to sell).

Our outreach activities consisted of two scheduled events of which only the first was very successful in terms of the number of people in attendance. This was a “Garden day” sponsored by the Master Gardeners of West Ottertail County on April 20, 2002 at the Fergus Falls Community College. Two talks regarding this project and related issues presented with ~30 people at each session. One of the sessions was video taped by the local TV company for airing on the local Public Station (we are not sure if this every did take place or not, the TV company did express an interest in additional coverage/story once grape production was in full swing – we whole heartedly agreed). A great deal of interest was expressed in the grapes/vines but little interest in the sheep side of the story.

Our second scheduled event was a Farm Field Day held on September 29th 2002. The event was advertised in the local papers, disappointedly no one attended. The weather that day was cold and rather wet which may have influenced people’s decision to participate.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.