Feasibility of Integrating Sheep into Vermont Vineyards: An Initial Look at Ecologic and Economic Benefits

Final report for FNE19-935

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2019: $6,419.00
Projected End Date: 02/29/2020
Grant Recipient: Shelburne Vineyard
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Ethan Joseph
Shelburne Vineyard
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

The integration of livestock and cropping systems dates back to early agriculture but was lost with the rise of modern farming methods. In this study, we investigated the potential ecologic and economic benefits of introducing sheep into a vineyard system in Vermont. The state’s winegrowers are eager to adopt new management strategies that promote sustainability through reducing environmental impact, improving farm economics, and increasing employee and consumer satisfaction. We examined elements of these possible benefits by collecting data on soil and vineyard floor species composition, assessing animal health, documenting vine and fruit response to the presence of floor vegetation and sheep, and lastly, evaluating consumer perceptions of sheep integration. While the result conclusions are largely anecdotal at this point, the project demonstrated answers to many questions and details for proof-of-concept that will continue to be tested in the years to come. During the project, our research was highlighted through several local media outlets (Seven Days, WCAX, WDEV radio). Our work was made available through several regional online newsletters, social media, discussions at the 2020 Vermont Livestock and Grazing Conference, as well with a demonstration when the sheep first arrived at the vineyard. We hope this project provides baseline data for future research.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to develop baseline information for evaluating the potential ecological and economic benefits and challenges of integrating sheep into a vineyard system in Vermont. We have four explicit objectives to explore this integration across the entire integrated system including:

  1. To measure the soil and other ecological outcomes of sheep integration into vineyards, such as fuel savings and soil health
  1. To assess the animal outcomes of sheep integration into vineyards
  1. To understand if grape quality and vine health are affected by sheep integration
  1. To analyze the economic outcomes and consumer perceptions of sheep-vineyard integration
Introduction:

From an agricultural perspective, winegrowing has long been considered a monoculture system. Vines are planted in a grid, with frequent mowing of row middles and herbicide use/cultivation ensuring bare ground under the vines. However, more recently, there’s been a growing movement to diversify vineyards, increase biodiversity, and improve sustainability. Some of this is done through interplanting with other annual or perennial crops, establishing pollinator habitat, eliminating herbicide use by maintaining vegetation under vine, and/or allowing vegetation in row middles to grow tall. Today, a small but growing body of research is exploring the integration of animals into vineyard systems. Such efforts are part of a wider movement to re-integrate crop and animal systems, historically common, and more recently divided because of the efficiencies of modern agriculture. Research on reintegrating such systems has shown that crop and animal integration provides both environmental and economic benefits. Vermont’s small, yet progressive wine industry has been keen to adopt current best management practices for vineyards, but has not explored the utilization of livestock, which is especially common in vineyard systems in New Zealand. Based on personal conversations with several winegrowing colleagues, there is developing interest in the strategic use of sheep in vineyards. This project aims to examine the potential ecologic and economic benefits of making sheep a component of sustainable vineyard management.

The potential for synergies through seasonal sheep integration into Vermont vineyard systems could prove significant. Historically, it is common in vineyards to frequently mow row middles and apply herbicide or cultivate under the vines. Because of farming conditions specific to the northeast, Cornell University has shown that these practices can have a detrimental effect on both the environment (increased nutrient leaching/greater soil bulk density) and the vines (increased vigor) (Vanden Heuvel 2017). Their recommendation has been to allow native vegetation or cover crops to establish under the vines. However, in-row vegetation and that between rows still requires management. Current methods for doing so are costly, requiring specialized equipment, frequent passes, and high labor inputs, not to mention the negative environmental impacts of fuel consumption and soil compaction. As a result, some growers either choose to stick with herbicides/cultivation or do nothing, which has implications like increased frost risk and damage from mice. Sheep could play a valuable role by offering a sustainable solution to vineyard floor management while at the same time increasing biodiversity in the system. Farmers working with herbicides/cultivation may move to more vegetative cover along with those who already have and both groups may find labor and fuel savings, improved soil health, decreased compaction, increased soil fertility, and increased microbial diversity, not to mention the emotional lift a flock of cute sheep can bring to employees and consumers. In addition, sheep are historically significant to Vermont, with an estimate that by 1836 there were a million sheep in the state (Bazilchuk and Strimbeck 1999). This project has implications that go outside that of Vermont vineyards, with relevance in other vineyards and perennial cropping systems locally, regionally, and beyond.

From a historical perspective, the intimate relationship between livestock and cropping systems is not new. Before the introduction of large-scale agriculture, smaller, diversified farms dominated the landscape where crops and animals were integrated synergistically globally (FAO 2010). Over time, agriculture became more specialized, transitioning crop and livestock production into separate entities, in some cases separated by large distances (Peyraud et al. 2014). Through this decoupling of crop and livestock systems, there have been significant potential productivity gains, but with significant adverse environmental and social externalities (Naylor et al. 2005).

Recent efforts to re-integrate crop and livestock systems have shown great promise to reducing these potential externalities in our global food system (Martin et al. 2016; Wilkins 2008). Existing research on re-integrating crop and livestock systems has found that such reintegration can provide economic benefits to farmers via reduced input costs and farm labor and reduce some environmental impacts including fuel consumption and soil compaction.

These efforts, while ongoing in research particularly related to beef and crop systems, are more recently including vineyards. As vineyards often have inter-row species, which can serve as feed for animals, there has been a small, but growing understanding of the potential opportunities and challenges with integrating animals into vineyard systems at various times. The practice is most pronounced in New Zealand, where there is no shortage of sheep (29 million in 2017 (Statistics New Zealand 2017), and a burgeoning wine industry is now the 15th largest producer in the world. It is estimated by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association that 59% of their growers (95% of all New Zealand winegrowers) are integrating sheep or other livestock into their vineyards at some point in the season (Niles et al. 2018). Such efforts have been widely understudied for their potential benefits and challenges, but recent evidence indicates that the practice can reduce both herbicide applications and mowing in vineyards, providing economic benefits to farmers (Niles et al. 2018). As a result, “wide scale global adoption of integration of sheep into vineyards has the potential to significantly reduce environmental impact” (Niles et al. 2018) and provide reduced costs to growers. However, New Zealand is quite different than the Northeast of the U.S. in these two industries- as both wine and sheep production are largely for export markets (Harrison 2015; New Zealand Winegrowers 2018).

While these efforts are only beginning in the U.S. (for example, small experiments in California (Meadows 2008) and New York (van Zoeren and Vanden Heuvel 2018), there is great opportunity for the practice domestically. In New England, and Vermont in particular, the industry is growing. Within the last twenty years, Vermont has gone from three wineries to over twenty and seen vineyard acreage increase from just a handful of acres to nearly 150. Simultaneously, there is a growing consumer interest in more diversified farming systems, local meat and wine production, and small-scale agricultural development. As such, our research will trial the integration of sheep into a Vermont vineyard to explore the potential initial challenges and benefits to ecological, plant, animal and consumer outcomes. We seek to understand in different climate and market systems the opportunities and challenges for vineyard and livestock producers with re-integrating animals into vineyard systems.

Click here for full Citation List

Description of farm operation:

Ethan Joseph, winegrower/partner, Shelburne Vineyard
Ethan has been growing grapes and making wine in his current capacity at Shelburne Vineyard (SV) since 2008 and recently became a managing partner. SV was established in 1998, making wine from five acres of grapes and purchasing juice from NY's Finger Lakes. We now farm twenty-acres of vines throughout the Champlain Valley and produce 5,000-6,0000cs of wine annually (about 25% of which is still purchased juice from NY). We sell predominantly through our tasting room, although we are distributed throughout the state of VT and also in NH, MA, ME, RI, IL, and CA with some outlets in NY and DC. Our focus is on cold-hardy hybrid varieties and we make a range of wines, from dry to dessert. Currently, our product line includes our Shelburne Vineyard wines, Iapetus Wine, and Capsize, a canned wine. Gross revenue is plus or minus $1 million. Our team consists of six full-time employees, two running the front of house and four, including myself, taking care of vineyard/winery operations. We also employ many part-time staff in the tasting room and seasonal hires in the field.

Mike Kirk, owner/shepherd, Greylaine Farm
Mike and his girlfriend Marion have been raising sheep for five years in Charlotte, VT. Their flock is small, but growing, and currently consists of 50 Dorset/il De France ewes grazed on over 40 acres with one full-time farmer and one part-time farmer. Greylaine Farm primarily sells meat but also sells breeding stock and feeder lambs. The sheep used in the grazing trials were from Greylaine Farm.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Michael Kirk
  • Meredith Niles - Technical Advisor (Educator and Researcher)
  • Juan Alvez - Technical Advisor (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

We have broken the project down into four sections: Soil Health and Forage, Animal Outcomes, Grape Outcomes, and Economic and Consumer Outcomes.

Soil Health and Forage
Overseen by technical advisor Juan Alvez, soil health and forage data was collected and processed as follows:

Composite soils samples within each of three treatments (two with sheep plus a control) was collected. Each sample was obtained by combining 15 sub-samples in a clean bucket. After mixing it, a sub-sample was taken from the mix and placed in a sealed, identified plastic bag, stored inside a refrigerated cooler and shipped to UVM Soils Testing Lab for subsequent nutrient and biological testing.

Pre-grazing pasture species within treatments were visually described and identified; then pasture yield was estimated via electronic capacitance meter (ECM). The entire plot area was grazed once the average forage mass reached an average of 2,400 lb DM/acre, down to 1,300 lb DM/acre within 12 hours, and the animals removed until the next grazing. Before grazing, two, 4×36-inch forage samples were collected by systematic randomization, by clipping at soil surface with an electric clipper. Samples were separated into grass, legume, and forb components, dried at 130 F, and weighed to determine botanical composition and obtain another measure of forage yield in addition to ECM measurements.

After each grazing, the area was clipped so that subsequent measurements of forage are from regrowth, not rejected material of previous grazings.

Experimental design: A completely randomized block design with a minimum of three replications per block (see scheme below) helped analyze soil attributes, forage composition, yield, botanical composition and quality, fruit chemistry and quality, pruning weight and before/after animal body condition. Each treatment had a minimum of 1000 sq ft area.

Block 1 Block 2
Block 3 for 1 cntrl
for2
for2 for1 cntrl
cntrl for2 for1
(vineyard area for block design was determined based on farm logistics at beginning of study, as there are multiple possible locations)

Animal Methods

Electric netting was put up prior to the sheep arrival.  Paddocks were 82ft by 55ft and energized with a solar energizer.  Water was provided by a 250 gallon tote set up with a automatic waterer.  Shelter was also provided by a ‘Port-a-hut’. Five Suffolk sheep (2 adult ewes, 3 lambs) were provided by the shepherds. The sheep were transported by trailer from the home farm to the vineyard and placed in the first paddock. As the animals were being loaded onto the trailer their body condition score was assessed. Body Condition Score is a 1-5 scale (Thompson and Meyer, 1994), resulting in an easy and accurate method of estimating the nutritional condition by assessing the amount of muscle and fat covering the backbone and the short ribs of each sheep, which translates into stored energy.

Initially the shepherds were working closely with the vineyard staff to help facilitate the grazing rotation and moving of fences. Paddock size was based on the number of sheep and available forage. After basic training on fencing and grazing rotation the vineyard staff handled all the fence moving.

Grape outcomes
Within treatment areas, we looked at fruit chemistry and plant vigor on five randomly selected vines to determine if integration of sheep has an affect on either.

Fruit chemistry parameters included pH, titratable acidity (TA), and sugar content (Brix). The collection of samples and subsequent analyses was performed by Shelburne Vineyard. To collect fruit samples, immediately pre-harvest, ten randomly selected clusters were collected from the five randomly selected vines. Selected clusters were then processed into juice by pressing the fruit by hand in a bucket and straining the juice through a strainer. The pH was tested using a Hanna HI2222 benchtop pH meter. TA was measured by titrating 10mL of juice with 0.1N NaOH (sodium hydroxide) as follows: Add 100mL of distilled water and several drops of phenolphthalein indicator to a beaker. Titrate the water to pink endpoint. Add 10mL of juice to the beaker, record starting level of sodium hydroxide and titrate to same pink endpoint. Record ending level of sodium hydroxide. Calculate TA: volume of NaOH titrated (mL) x 0.75 = g/L TA. Sugar content, or Brix, was determined using an ATC handheld analog refractometer. A drop of juice was placed onto the viewing slide, the clear plate was placed on top, and the refractometer was held up to a light source and viewed through the eyepiece to see the scale inside the meter.

Likewise, on these same randomly selected vines, we will measure pruning weight, simply the weight of annual growth that is removed during dormant pruning which serves as a proxy for vine vigor. Shelburne Vineyard will collect and measure these attributes. To do so, the vine is pruned and all pruned material is collected and weighed using a fish scale or some other small, portable weighing device. In addition, at bloom time and again at the start of ripening (verasion), we will collect grape leaf petioles for subsequent tissue analysis, giving us a snapshot of vine nutrient status. Petioles will be collected according to guidelines set forth by the Agro-One branch of the Cornell affiliated Dairy One lab and analyses will be performed by the lab.

Economic and consumer outcomes
We will measure potential economic changes in both business structures (sheep and vineyard systems) to understand how integration may affect changes in farm labor, input use, and feed costs. Led by the technical advisor Dr. Meredith Niles, this research will work with both the vineyard and sheep farm to document baseline economic costs in labor associated with sheep and vineyard management, input costs, and (for sheep) feed costs. These baseline measurements, taken from the previous year and prior to sheep integration, will then be compared with measurements taken during the integration period. Key metrics including: 1) man hours of labor (e.g. transport of animals, animal management, fencing, mowing, input applications); 2) input costs (e.g. herbicides or other chemicals, nutrient inputs, water, etc.); and 3) feed and seed costs. Analysis will explore changes in costs before and during integration to calculate the potential costs or savings to both farm systems.

In addition, we will examine preliminary consumer perceptions of sheep integration into vineyard systems.  Very little is known about consumer preferences for re-integrated systems. However, animal integration into vineyard systems may elicit varying perspectives on topics including animal welfare, environmental benefits, and food safety. We will conduct a survey of wine consumers and purchases via the Shelburne Vineyard tasting room on multiple occasions (e.g. when sheep are physically in the vineyard and not) to examine initial perceptions of the practice, consumer preferences, and willingness to pay additional premiums for wine or sheep produced in this way. Survey participation will be completely voluntary. Shelburne Vineyard Tasting Room associates will ask customers if they would like to complete the survey. Surveys will then be collected by the associate. Prior to surveys, Institutional Review Board approval will be obtained. Surveys will be analyzed using Pearson correlation coefficient. 

 

Research results and discussion:

As stated earlier, our project ended up being more of a proof of concept than one rich in data. However, this was crucial to determining if grazing sheep in VT vineyards was even possible. Even with a limited flock of sheep and five weeks of grazing, it was clear that the potential for this integrated management is real. We plan to continue these efforts on a larger scale, hosting a bigger flock on more area than we did in the project. Colleagues have also expressed interest in pursuing the integration of sheep in other vineyards as well. 

Typically, a vineyard is a stand alone system and mowing is commonplace. With the introduction of sheep, we have added a layer of complexity that gives the land additional purpose and benefits the system as well. We will be able to delay and reduce mowing in the vineyard by at least one pass, which will save money and reduce tractor passes in the vineyard. Because sheep also prefer to graze certain vegetation, we may seed down specific forage which will benefit both the sheep and the vineyard. We also noticed that just having sheep in the vineyard contributed to overall happiness and enjoyment at work. Employees also gained skills in animal husbandry. Many passersby were intrigued by the sheep and stopped into the winery to ask questions. Overall, we project that integrating sheep will have more profound ecological and social impacts than it will on farm economics like labor. However, the former two have potential to significantly impact public relations, consumer perception, and awareness and as a result positively impact the value added financial side of both winegrowing and sheep farming.

We will address the four study sections from the project separately and below:

Soil Health/Forage

Soils

Composite soil samples were taken in the treatment area before the sheep started grazing and at the end of the season in May and November respectively. Results were not tested for statistical significance.

Soil pH remained almost unchanged, slightly decreasing from 6.5 to 6.4.

Organic matter (SOM) increased from 3.9 to 5.9% (30.8%). Cation exchange capacity (CEC), the total capacity of a soil to hold exchangeable cations, influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients and provides a buffer against soil acidification. CEC improved from 9.4 to 10.3 (9.6%)

Potassium (K), calcium (Ca), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), copper (Cu) and aluminum (Al) rose 16.5, 13, 150, 44, 100 and 100 percent respectively, and manganese (Mg) and sodium (Na) decreased by 13.5 and 64.3 percent correspondingly, while phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), boron (B), zinc (Zn) remained unchanged.

The soil report also provided nutrient recommendations for limestone (t/A), nitrogen (lbs/A), phosphate (lbs/A) and potash (lbs/A), before and after sheep grazed in the experimental area. In this trial, nitrogen recommendations increased from 40 to 160 lbs/A (300%), decreased for phosphate, from 120 to 60 lbs/A (50%), and remained unchanged for potash and limestone at 100 lbs/A and 0 lbs/A respectively.

It is conceivable that soils slightly increased due to the presence of grazing animals during the trial period however, we cannot conclude that statistically. Furthermore, it is possible that supplemental nutrition could be exchanged for grazing over time, but this study did not conclude that definitively.

Forages

Composite forage samples were taken in the treatment area before the sheep started grazing and after that. Forage quality results were collected, and were not tested for statistical significance.

Crude protein (CP) increased from 1.6 to 1.9 (1.5%).

Acid detergent fiber (ADF) –accounts for cellulose and lignin; as ADF increases, digestibility decreases- fell from 33.7 to 29.2 (15.4%).

Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) –composed by hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin declined from 53.1 to 42.7 (24.4%).

Total digestible nutrients (TDN), relates to digestible energy and is calculated based on ADF. TDN remained unchanged.

Net energy for Lactation (NEL) is the forage’s ability to meet the energy requirements of dairy and beef cattle, expressed in MCal/lb. In this case, NEL increased from 1.25 to 1.33 (6%).

Relative feed value –a forage quality index, calculated by estimating the digestibility of the forage dry matter, and how much the cow can eat based on its “filling” capacity-, improved from 110 to 144 (23.6%) and relative feed quality (RFQ) –provides a more accurate index of how a forage will perform in an animal diet, went from 136 to 187 (27.3%).

It is likely that forages improved due to the presence of grazing animals during the trial period however, we cannot conclude that statistically.

Animal

One concern at the outset of the pilot project was whether or not vines would be disturbed by the sheep grazing on or around them.  We found that as long as the vineyard staff kept a close eye on the sheep and forage availability and subsequently moved them when forage diminished, the vines were not disturbed by the sheep.  Initially the shepherds labor involvement was greater than anticipated due to training and transitioning the care of the sheep to the vineyard staff. We visited the vineyard on average every 48-hours to ensure the animals well-being. However, after the staff was trained in basic sheep care this will likely not be the case in future grazing of the vineyard. Overall we learned that the shepherd must maintain a watchful eye over the sheep in conjunction with the vineyard staff as they may not be privy to the nuances of sheep care and production. This was done over phone and picture messages if any questions arose on behalf of the vineyard staff. 

Overall the five sheep maintained body condition over the 5 weeks of grazing. The sheep selected for grazing were lactating ewes with a set of twin lambs and a single lamb respectively. They were selected by the shepherd for the grazing trials based on body condition and uniformity of breed.   The grazing of the animals was adequate to maintain their dry matter intake and body condition.  In the future we determined that there are forage species that benefit both vine and sheep that can be incorporated into the seeding plans.

Animal selection is dependent on many factors. We found that the animals best suited for grazing in our production system (March lambing) are  mothers with a body condition score of 3.5 or higher. On average by the time the animals will begin grazing the vineyard in our lambing cycle the mother just need to maintain body condition as their lambs require less milk. Another option as the shepherd grows the flock would be to send open yearling ewes that just need to maintain body condition on lower quality forage. 

If the forage were to remain unchanged in the vineyard we found that it is suitable for maintenance of the sheep body condition. One area to explore next is to determine which forage species can be seeded to benefit both sheep and vines.  For example, chicory was identified as one potential forage species to seed among the vines. 

Grape

As anticipated, we did not observe or record any measurable impacts of sheep integration on either fruit chemistry or vine vigor. More importantly though, we did collect baseline data which will be integral to evaluating these potential impacts of continued sheep grazing over a long period of time. Without additional controls and a multi-year investigation, it will be difficult to isolate the affect of grazing on grape outcomes from other variables like vintage variation, canopy management, and crop load. 

Because the treated area in this study comprised two different grape varieities (Louise Swenson and Marquette), we looked at each of them separately for the grape outcomes. Samples for analysis were collected on 9/27/19 for Louise Swenson and on 10/19/19 for Marquette. Chemistry for Louise Swenson was as follows: Treated (3.09pH, 9.4g/L TA, 17.1 Brix) and Untreated (3.12pH, 9.2g/L TA, and 17.0 Brix). Chemistry for Marquette was as follows: Treated (3.0pH, 13.2g/L TA, and 26.4 Brix) and Untreated (2.97pH, 13.3g/L TA, and 26.0 Brix). While there were some minor differences between the Treated and Untreated samples, it is highly likely this was due to inconsistencies in sampling, margin of error in analysis, or the nature of fruit ripening. Even in the typical fruit sampling we complete every year, if two random samples were collected at the same time from the same block, it would not be surprising to see minor differences in the results. As mentioned previously, fruit chemistry is significantly affected by the growing season (temperature, precipitation, sunlight), canopy management (balanced pruning, thinning, leaf pulling), and crop load. It is therefore likely that basic fruit chemistry (pH, TA, and Brix measured in this study) may not be an adequate parameter for assessing the impact of grazing on fruit. It may be that a more complicated and thorough analysis of a wide spectrum of fruit parameters is required to more accurately determine if grazing has an impact on fruit chemistry or other physical attributes of grape clusters. 

Initially we outlined recording pruning weights as an assessment of vine vigor. We would have taken these measurements this winter during dormant pruning. However, because the 2019 growing season was so cool, harvest was later than usual. It is ideal to have at least one month between harvest and first frost in order for the vines to have an opportunity to redistribute carbohydrates into woody tissue and prepare for winter hardiness. Frost came in early October 2019, followed by a significant cold event in November. As a result, the vines did not have sufficient time to fully acclimate to winter and suffered dieback of the woody tissue that would have been used in our measure of pruning weight. Because we felt this situation did not accurately represent “normal” pruning weights, we decided to remove this observation from the study. Even though we did not record differences with vine vigor over the course of one season due to the limitations of the study period and weather, it is likely that sheep integration would impact this over time. Vine vigor is related to competition from vegetation growth on the vineyard floor and nutrient cycling/availability, among other things. However, sheep integration has the potential to change the composition of vegetation on the vineyard floor and add nutrients back to the soil via manure. This could help save time and labor in spreading compost and reduce inputs related to such activities. But, this issue of vigor is not straightforward. Vines can be overly vigorous or under stress from low vigor; the goal is a healthy vine with vigor that balances its vegetative growth with its fruit load and the vine’s ability to adequately ripen that fruit. Therefore, depending on what impact sheep integration has on vigor, grazing could be used strategically to increase it or decrease it on a site by site or block by block basis. It’s also possible that sheep don’t have a direct impact on vigor, but rather a secondary impact, altering the composition and chemistry of the soil, which in turn manifests as a change in vine vigor. Changes in soil chemistry were discussed above. We did collect verasion petiole samples to provide a snapshot of vine nutrient status. See Petiole results and Petiole results 2. In our original methods, we outlined collecting both bloom time and verasion petiole samples. This would have provided a more complete picture of vine nutrient status because the vine utilizes nutrients in different amounts and at different times during the growing season. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to collect the bloom time samples because of other farm activities. However, as long as future petiole samples are taken at verasion (and bloom if desired) we will still have a consistent baseline for comparison. As a baseline recording, these petiole tests don’t say anything about the impact of grazing, but rather that the vines’ nutrient status is out of balance and needs attention.

Economic and Consumer

While we were unable to realize any conclusive economic outcomes, we did discover many positive correlations relating the Vineyard and grazing sheep that point to a clear potential of economic benefit. Response rate to the survey was relatively low, with a total number of nineteen respondents. We could have and should have had more, but changeover in Shelburne Vineyard Tasting Room staff impacted the degree to which the surveys were offered to consumers. Nonetheless, potential economically important observations were documented. For instance, people who visit the winery more often were willing to pay more for sheep integrated into the vineyard (0.360, p=0.019). Additionally, people who enjoyed seeing the sheep in the vineyard were more likely to purchase wine from integrated sheep (0.545, p=0.002). It was also shown that people who thought the sheep had environmental benefits were more likely to purchase wine from integrated sheep (0.541, p=0.0002) and purchase lamb or other sheep products (0.329, p=0.031). With this, we can see clearly that sheep integration into the vineyard has possible economic benefits for both farm partners. The extent of this economic benefit is yet to be determined but the opportunity is there.

Consumers were also somewhat impacted when visiting the winery and observing sheep in the vineyard. When asked how much they agree to enjoying seeing sheep in the vineyard, 73.81% strongly agreed. These consumers also felt sheep had environmental benefits (0.437, p=0.0038) and that integration was beneficial for the sheep (0.506, p=0.0006). Those that were interested in purchasing lamb were also more likely to want recipes (0.685, p<0.0001).

At the start of the project, we had only theorized the above results. Now we have recorded that consumers are positively impacted by seeing sheep in the vineyard and this correlates with a willingness to pay more for wine made utilizing integration and desire to purchase sheep products. It was also clear that consumer perception of the environmental benefits and sheep benefits were positive. For the full survey results, see here.

Research conclusions:

This project ended up serving as a proof of concept effort. Due to lack of resources to reference for our climate and vineyard conditions, and having little experience with sheep in vineyards, there was much trial and error. However, after the initial learning curve, it was clear that the sheep-vineyard system would work. Until this project, the utilization of sheep in VT vineyards was only a discussion. Now, with one season completed, the actual potential has been demonstrated. Colleagues are eager to either pursue relationships with existing shepherds or become shepherds themselves in effort to explore this management option on their own vineyards. 

Overall, more data needs to be collected to determine the ecological impacts the sheep may present amongst the vines. It is clear to see there is untapped potential for using sheep as part of the management system in vineyards. The results from this project will hopefully serve as a starting point for other vine growers to use to integrate sheep into their own operations. This project established and answered many questions that will allow Shelburne Vineyard to continue to expand the symbiosis found with sheep grazing the vines. 

 

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
4 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference

Participation Summary:

7 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Integrating sheep into vineyards is new for our region and much excitement resulted from the development of our project. We have been approached by several grape growers to discuss the study and have offered initial consultation on feasibility and lessons learned. Aside from the interest expressed by these growers, it is unclear how many, if any, will integrate sheep in 2020. We believe at current the concept is more of a thought experiment and each farmer needs to determine how best and when to implement a strategy such as grazing. There’s potential for the type of partnership exhibited in this project, but access to animals is a major challenge. 

On the day the sheep arrived, we invited people to the vineyard to watch and demonstrate what we were doing. Only about 10 people came and it was a learning experience for all. We discussed the fencing used, paddock design, animal safety, grazing, benefits to the vines, and enjoyed the bucolic scene of sheep grazing in a vineyard.

In the January of 2020, Mike attended the Vermont Grass Farmers Association Annual Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference. While there in an unofficial capacity, he spoke with colleagues about the project. 

News of this project traveled far and wide and reached a broad audience. NBC5 did a feature on their evening broadcast. Seven Days, distributed throughout the state, wrote an article. Ethan and Mike’s alma mater, University of Vermont, did a story on their website homepage and also a story in the fall issue of UVM Quarterly. Additionally, the project was picked up by Modern Farmer, an authority on food producers influencing the current state of agriculture. Also, Meredith and Ethan were interviewed on the Dave Gram Show on WDEV, a radio network in VT. And lastly and most recently, the project was picked up by the Savanna Institute, a mid-west organization working in agroforestry, and posted about on their Instagram page. It’s difficult to estimate the total number of people exposed to our research, but we believe it to be thousands.

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

In the spring of 2019, Shelburne Vineyard and Greylaine Farm formalized a partnership and trial that had long been a discussion and goal for both of them. However, research into the topic of sheep in vineyards had been limited to vastly different climates and viticultural areas of substantially larger scale. As a result, there were several lessons learned that will be discussed below.

Regions in which animal integration into a vineyard is common often have year round growing seasons. New Zealand and California vineyards are able to graze sheep during vine dormancy. At this time, there is little to no risk of vine damage in this situation because the sheep are not interested in woody tissue and no vine shoots, which do interest them, are growing. In Vermont, vine growth and forage growth happen concurrently. Therefore, timing of sheep integration is critical; sheep can only be present in the vineyard in early spring, before vine growth progresses too far. Fortunately, grapevines typically grown in Vermont are trained to a hi-wire trellising system, which puts the majority of vine growth out of the reach of sheep, at least for a short time at the beginning of the season. This training does allow sheep to be present in the vineyard during bud break and early shoot development. If grazing continues too long into the season, the sheep will eat the tips off the shoots, which negatively impacts the vine canopy. Ideal timing is pre-bud break to about two foot shoot length.

Sheep in vineyard pre-bud break
Vine growth on hi-wire out of reach of sheep
Evidence of damage on renewal shoot at grazing height

Timing of grazing influences the next lesson learned which relates to the number of sheep in the vineyard and paddock size and design. For this pilot project, five sheep were put into the vineyard in different sized paddocks and moved every few days. Moving the sheep was based on how quickly they grazed the forage and this related to paddock size; a smaller paddock resulted in more frequent moving. The important thing is to match paddock size with the size of the flock and the size of the flock to the acreage of vineyard to be grazed. In this trial, it was determined that seven eighty-two foot sections of portable electro-netting would result in the most efficient paddock design, regardless of flock size. Given the timing consideration above, it is better to have more sheep for less overall time. The ideal number of sheep for several acres of vineyard is still being investigated and is likely to be site specific. 

Setting up paddocks
Site shot with paddocks
The flock

On that note, an important consideration of the site is the quality of the forage on the vineyard floor. Most established vineyards are not seeded with grazing in mind; rather vineyard specific choices are made. Part of this study was to assess the current growth in the vineyard and the subsequent forage selections made by the sheep, as well as documenting baseline information for how this vegetation may change with the introduction of grazing. In the trial, the sheep did a thorough job grazing most, if not all, of the vegetation when the growth was young and nutritious. However, as the predominant and well established grasses of the site matured, they became fibrous and less nutritious and as a result, the grazing was less effective. This again relates to the number of sheep in the vineyard and the overall timing, with the goal being able to move more animals through the vineyard quicker while forage is still of high quality. It also suggests that overseeding with desirable forage species may be beneficial to encourage ideal grazing level.

Young, nutritious, fresh forage thoroughly grazed
Less nutritious, fibrous grasses

The final lesson learned, and perhaps the most challenging, is associated with vineyard spraying. Whether organic or not, grapevines require spraying with various materials to protect them from fungal pathogens. Some of these materials are harmful to the sheep if ingested through forage. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient research on the subject. Some materials list a “do not graze” statement, while others, like copper, are known to be toxic to sheep, but minor amounts are also required by them. How much of these materials fall onto forage during a spray application? This study did investigate that question, but it would be interesting for future research. For this trial, we followed best practices and removed the sheep from the vineyard for 48hrs following a spray application (in this case copper and sulfur). The sheep were then returned to the vineyard. Having sheep in the vineyard combined with the necessity of spraying, especially in a wet season like 2019, was logistically challenging.

Holding paddock outside vineyard during spray operations

Learning to integrate sheep into a Vermont vineyard wasn’t easy, but it proved to show the potential for doing so on a larger scale. Timing and size of flock are the two most important components for maximizing the benefits of vineyard floor grazing. It is with all these lessons in mind that this initial trial informs the 2020 vintage and beyond.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

In an interview with Modern Farmer, Mike said “If anything, this tells a great story. It’s exciting for agri-tourism. It can provide more of a draw for people to visit [Ethan’s] vineyard, see our sheep and then just learn about animals and understand. We farm the way we farm for many reasons and I hope those benefits that we see on our land can be expanded upon or taught.” This statement provides a brief overview of what this project accomplished. While we didn’t end up with a substantial amount of widely applicable data, outside of baseline information for future research, what did result was a successful story about two farms working together in an innovative way. Technical Advisor Juan Alvez summed it up like this, “What I really like about this project is, we’re facing a crisis right now in dairy and other agricultural sectors. This is a way to combine two enterprises and create a win-win scenario.”

The farmers with Technical Advisor Juan Alvez

As a long term goal of ours, it was exciting and fulfilling to finally see sheep grazing in the vineyard. Because the ecologic and economic impacts are complex and layered with variables, it will take more time and many seasons to realize their affects on the animals, vines, and our businesses. However, we successfully demonstrated that a partnership such as this is possible and has potential in our climate and vine training system. Before this project, we didn’t have any directly relatable research or examples to reference. Now, with one season down, we can take what we’ve learned, change what didn’t work, and fine tune the challenges so everything goes more smoothly. For example, our original paddock design called for fencing that was 164′ and 63′ in length. However, we quickly realized that for ease and speed of moving sheep in the vineyard, having all lengths of 82′ would give us the most flexibility and efficiency. Also, as a pilot project with only five sheep, it became clear that the scale of this first effort was too small given the size of the vineyard. As a result, we didn’t see savings in mowing or labor because the sheep weren’t able to get through the whole vineyard before forage quality diminished or before removal due to shoot length and we therefore had to mow where they hadn’t yet grazed. This will influence our decisions going forward of matching size of flock to the vineyard blocks. In addition, we plan to explore seeding grazing specific vegetation on the vineyard floor to encourage thorough grazing and maximize the health of the sheep. 

Overall there was a sense of joy and uplifted spirits at bringing our two farms together. Our project served as an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Each of us has our specialties and knowledge base but combining all of it together provided a sense of accomplishment and work satisfaction that we hadn’t experienced before. We hope, as the few survey results indicate, that we will be able to reach new markets as a result of this. At the very least our efforts will bolster our marketing and outreach. In an interview with Seven Days, Ethan said, “Wine often gets overlooked as an agricultural product, mainly because people are used to larger-scale [production], like grocery store wine. This is a good example of how two different agricultural businesses can come together.”

While there hasn’t been additional research to come out of this project to date, it is our intent to scale this up into a VT-wide or regional effort. Colleagues in New York are just starting to investigate livestock integration into vineyards and there have been conversations about collaborating on a multi-state initiative in the near future. In the meantime, we will continue our local partnership and look forward to the possibilities ahead.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Overall, our approach to this study was well informed and designed. This is no more evident than in the make up of our project team. We had two farmers, one specializing in vineyards and another on sheep, and two technical advisors, one with an extensive background in sheep integration in vineyards and the other who’s research focuses on agroecology. By bringing all of our expertise together, we assembled a team specifically based on the design and goals of the project.

We feel our methods were well described and implemented but perhaps overshot the reality on the ground. As a short, one year pilot study, and the first of its kind in VT and much of New England, we didn’t know what to expect. Working with animals and nature is unpredictable. We encountered unforeseen logistical issues related to sheep transport and size of flock/timing of integration. Much of our actual time was spent determining the best paddock design given our row lengths and moving sheep from paddock to paddock and then out of the vineyard while spraying. We would not have known beforehand that all 82′ length fencing would provide us with the most flexibility and efficiency in the vineyard. Also, because the flock size was small, the sheep didn’t have time to graze through a significant portion of the vineyard. Therefore, we were not able to compare vineyard labor related to floor management with sheep or prior to sheep. It would have also been preferable to collect more information on consumer perceptions. Our survey was well crafted and targeted to answers we sought, but not as widely responded to as we would have found satisfactory. This was a fault of our own (surveys were misplaced in Tasting Room) and not project design. Aside from these challenges, our approach and methods largely provided the baseline data we were after.

As mentioned previously in this report, this project turned out to be more of a proof of concept than a data driven investigation. While we did collect valuable information that we hope to use as baseline data for a future project, a one season study is insufficient time to adequately evaluate both the ecological and economic impacts of sheep integration into a vineyard. Therefore, we did not answer those specific questions with this study. However, we did demonstrate that a farmer-to-farmer partnership, one that unites their skills and expertise, is possible to bring this novel approach to VT and beyond. In our view, this was a successful project even though we did not answer all of our research questions.

We plan to continue to utilize sheep in the vineyard because we believe in the potential benefits for both farm partners. The key word is potential. This practice has been documented to result in ecologic and economic benefits elsewhere in the world. Even though we did not necessarily observe these benefits after one season, we believe they exist here as well. Sustainability in agriculture is an important philosophy to us, as is strengthening the agricultural community through unique partnerships, and we will continue to serve as leaders and working examples of both. Additional research is absolutely needed to document the benefits (or not) seen in other regions and to uncover additional research questions specific to our climate. We feel this knowledge and information will be useful not only for winegrowers and sheep farmers in similar climates, but also other perennial cropping systems like orchards and Christmas tree farms.

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.