Rotational grazing as a tool for Christmas tree producers

Final Report for FNE08-634

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2008: $3,966.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
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Project Information


Note to readers, attached is the complete final report for FNE08-634

Our second year pasturing lambs in Christmas trees proved to be more successful than the first although damage to the trees did occur. Additionally, this year we put goats to work reclaiming some overgrown/fallow sections of Christmas trees. We hope to secure funding for the coming year in an effort to refine the project and minimize/eliminate damage to the Christmas trees.


The Freymoyer Farm-Farmer Grant proposed to evaluate the use of sheep as a tool for Christmas tree producers, utilizing the sheep as a substitute for mowing. The sheep were rotated in two blocks of trees from early June through early September. Additionally, a field day, sponsored by grant advisor, Dan Ludwig, and the SE Pennsylvania Chapter of Project Grass, was held on the Freymoyer Farm for small ruminant and Christmas tree producers. Mike Hartman, collaborator and owner of the sheep, cared for the sheep on a daily basis. Dan Ludwig, grant advisor, assisted in marketing and organizing the project field day.

The Freymoyer Farm is a 125 property with approximately 40 acres of active production including small grains, hay, and Christmas trees. The balance of the property is forested. The Christmas tree operation is the major revenue component of the operation.


Materials and methods:
Project description and methodology

With an electric fence and a solar charger, we created two pastures of approximately 1 acre each, enclosing two blocks of mature (0-2 years to sale) Christmas trees. We chose mature trees because any damage to the trees from browse would be limited to the lower reaches of the tree rather than the leader. Unlike last season, when we divided the pasture into three sections of approximately one-third of an acre each, the sheep this season were allowed access to the full acre area at all times. A control block of Christmas trees of similar size was maintained and labor costs for the section were recorded. Soil samples were taken before and after the sheep were pastured.

Mike Hartman was hospitalized in late May and early June, and as such, the sheep were introduced later than proposed on June 21st, well after the grass had reached full maturity.

The eight lambs were rotated through the first two sections successfully over the next four weeks and moved to another section on July 20th that did not include Christmas trees. The lambs were moved back into the Christmas tree sections on September 3rd and spent approximately 2 weeks in each. In addition to their grazing, the lambs matted the grass to a level similar to mowing. Their diet was supplemented with “waste” pretzels from a local pretzel manufacturer and on occasion, “waste” apples from a neighboring orchard. No mowing was needed in any of the grazed pastures.

An additional two pastures were created in a section of 30 year old trees that had become choked with shrub honeysuckle. These two sections were grazed by eight goats, which were introduced on June 21, with the intent of creating additional pasture for the sheep. The long term goal is to remove the old, diseased trees and convert to active Christmas tree production. The goats were removed from the “old/sick tree section” on November 15 and were extremely successful in removing the unwanted vegetation.

Research results and discussion:

Browse to the Christmas trees was less than experienced last season and seemed to be isolated to the areas where watering occurred. The browse did impact the marketability of approximately 15 trees that were reduced in quality or made unsellable this season. Some of the trees that were damaged last season recovered enough to make them saleable.

The damage experienced last year due to the sheep seeking shade was significantly reduced largely due to the use of the lambs rather than the yearlings. Additionally, the lambs were pastured in another area for the hottest part of the season and the flies were not as bad as the previous season. This was an important change in the project.

We view the browse to the Christmas trees as a work in progress that can be improved upon. The levels experienced are not tolerable for the average Christmas tree producer, however, we believe significant improvement is achievable with project design refinement.

Soil samples were taken in mid-July and showed an increase in P and K, similar to the results last year. This is believed to be a result of a 2006 and 2008 lime application of 2.5 ton per acre.

In the control block, which was maintained with standard practices, labor totaled 6 hours. For project purposes, the labor involving the management of the lambs was approximately 60 hours. This was less than last season due to the shortened project length as well as not having to replace the yearlings.

While there are savings on equipment and fuel, the labor expense is greater and the browse ate into any savings in labor expense.

It should be noted that the first growth of grass in the section with the lambs was significantly more robust when compared to the control block. This is most likely a function of the lambs browsing the grass as well as the incremental benefits of the manure.

All of the lambs were marketed and sold to Christmas tree customers. The lambs were sold for approximately $2 per pound liveweight.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We conducted a field day on September 9th at the farm to discuss the project and its results at that time, as well as possible applications for other producers. The event was publicized in the Reading Eagle and Lancaster Farmer. Additionally, the event was promoted by the PA Christmas Tree Producers Association and the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture and was distributed on their email list servers. Finally, notice was also mailed to members of the SE PA Project Grass members.

The turnout was good with approximately 15 individuals from Berks, Lebanon, Bucks and Dauphin counties as well as Christmas tree and sheep and goat producers; several people traveled over one and a half hours for the program. A Mennonite family attended as did a suburban farm family from Bucks County. Grant advisor Dan Ludwig of Lebanon NRCS was present as were several members of the Penn State Cooperative Berks Extension.

Additionally, we have been in contact with the American Sheep Industry Association (ASIA). There staff writer, Becky Talley, is producing an article which will be featured in their industry newsletter. Becky will also look for additional outlets for the article, including the Journal of Northeast Farming. We anticipate continued collaboration with ASIA as they are working on similar projects. We were pleased to have made this contact and feel it will be valuable moving forward.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

Future extension

We plan to use blocks of Christmas trees as pasture for lambs again next season. The rate of weight gain and condition of the lambs were acceptable. Although the trees were browsed, we believe that improvements are achievable. We view the project as a success and will largely use the same procedure, however, with some modifications. It should be noted that the lambs were successfully marketed and all of the customers are also Christmas tree customers.

We plan to increase the size of the pastures and rotate where the lambs are watered; we hope this will minimize the browse. We would like to add additional pastures as well. Like this year, we plan to use another non-Christmas tree pasture during the hottest part of the season. Additionally, the sheep will have access to the areas that the goats grazed this season. These areas were seeded this fall with a grass/clover mixture.

We view the acres of grass in nursery and Christmas tree production as well as off-season orchard as a potential benefit to sheep producers rather than a significant management cost for Christmas tree producers. The issue is removing risk, in the form of tree damage, to the tree producer.

In our instance, the Christmas tree producer bears all of the potential downside (damaged trees) while not sharing in any of the benefit (marketable sheep, fed on free grass). This could be addressed in one of several ways: an insurance policy on the trees, sharing in the ownership of the marketable lambs or finally, ownership of the lambs and Christmas trees by one individual.

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.