Improving Vineyard Grass and Weed Control through the Incorporation of Babydoll Sheep

Project Overview

FNC07-648
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $3,736.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: grapes
  • Animals: sheep

Practices

  • Animal Production: grazing management
  • Crop Production: cover crops
  • Pest Management: physical control, weed ecology

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Jowler Creek is located northwest of the Kansas City Metropolitan Area near Platte City, Missouri just off Interstate 29. The operation currently has six acres of grapes including 3,500 Norton, Vignoles, Traminette, and Cabernet Franc vines. Planting of the vineyard began in 2004 with subsequent planting occurring in 2005, 2006, and 2008.

    To market the grapes, Jowler Creek specializes in producing high-quality, fun-to-drink wines. In addition to marketing the wine directly to customers via an on-site tasting room, Jowler Creek self-distributes their wines to high-quality wine stores and restaurants on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro. While the wines appeal to a broad audience, the winery’s main consumer target are progressive, eco-friendly, young professionals between the ages 21 and 40.

    Before receiving the grant, we implemented the following sustainable practices:
    • Wildlife corridors around the vineyard to help preserve the natural environment
    • Following integrated pest management disease models to reduce spraying applications
    • Using solar power to electrify the fence surrounding the vineyard
    • Using an electric golf cart in the vineyard, in combination with cellular and radio communications, to reduce travel and dependence on fossil fuels

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    Goals:
    The goal of this project was to improve how the cover crop is managed both under and between the rows of vines in Jowler Creek Vineyard, thus significantly decreasing – and eliminating – the use of herbicides and tillage. In the past, the grass between the rows was mowed approximately every 10 days from April-October, and the 3-foot soil strip surrounding the vines was both tilled and treated with herbicides on a monthly basis. The previous methods have contributed to significant areas of soil erosion in some areas of the vineyard with a steeper slope.

    In an effort to find a more sustainable and ecologically sound solution, this project will test the effectiveness of controlling grass and weed growth with managed grazing by Olde English Babydoll Sheep. The sheep were stocked at a rate of 8 wethers per acre and rotated throughout the growing season to “mow” the cover crop between the rows of 4-year-old and 5-year-old Norton vines on 6-foot-tall Geneva Double Curtain trellising.

    PROCESS
    The first step was to decide on which type of sheep to use in our project. We decided on Olde English Babydoll since breed standards indicate they must be 24 inches or under shorn, measured straight up the front leg to the top of their shoulder. Because of their small stature, these sheep were the ideal breed for the project. While standard-sized breeds could easily reach, eat and damage the vines and grapes, this miniature breed was short enough to fit under the trellising system, but wasn’t tall enough to eat the fruit.

    The sheep weed control system was studied in 2 acres of our five-acre vineyard (called the test section) where erosion was a challenge and the most mature vines are located. We continued to execute the conventional methods of weed and cover crop control in the remaining 4 acres of the vineyard (called the control section). To evaluate the effectiveness, we compared the amount of herbicides applied, loss of soil, fossil fuels consumed, weed species and overall soil fertility between the two plots.

    PEOPLE
    NAME; TITLE; INVOLVEMENT
    Andy Allen; Viticulturist; Guidance on managing vineyard with new system and assistance with outreach to other producers.
    Jason Gerke; Co-owner Jowler Creek Vineyard and Winery; General project labor, results gathering, outreach to other producers.
    James Humphrey; Livestock Specialist; Guidance on managing sheep and assistance with outreach to other producers.
    Dr. James McCrea; Veterinarian; Support managing health and nutrition of sheep.
    Sarah Schmidt; President, Missouri Grape Growers Association; Assistance with outreach to other producers across Missouri.
    Marlin Bates; Horticulture Specialist; Assistance with outreach to other producers in Platte County, Missouri and nearby areas.
    Paul E. Read; Viticulture Professor; Assistance with outreach to other producers across Nebraska.

    RESULTS
    Following are the results of this management practice:
    • ENVIRONMENTAL
    o Elimination of herbicide application – Since the sheep very effectively ate the grass, weeds and other unwanted vegetation in the 3-foot wide strip under the vine rows, we were able to eliminate the use of herbicides in the test plot of the vineyard. This had an estimated value of $390/acre.
    o Less tillage and soil erosion – Since the 3-foot strip of bare ground surrounding the vines was re-seeded with grass, the need to till the soil with a cultivator was eliminated. As a result, less soil eroded throughout the year and fewer gouges in the ground were visible.
    o Decreased dependence on fossil fuels – Fewer passes with the tractor for mowing and spraying, and reduced use of the gas-powered string trimmer to cut the weeds under the vines significantly lowered the amount of fossil fuels consumed. We evaluated this by comparing the amount of fuel used to mow/cultivate the test section of the vineyard with the amount of fuel used to mow/cultivate the control section of the vineyard. This had an estimated fuel savings of 24 gallons annually, in addition to less carbon emissions being released into the environment.
    o Improved soil health – With their small hoofs, the babydoll sheep have compacted the soil much less than the areas used with a tractor. This is visually evident in the rows. Also, the sheep spread natural manure fertilizer that adds to the health of the soil and vines.
    • ECONOMIC
    o Lower costs – Jowler Creek Vineyard purchased the initial flock of 12 sheep for $900. We spent $75 maintaining the flock this year with feed and vet costs. Meanwhile, in the control section of the vineyard we spent approximately $310 per acre in controlling weeds and mowing the grass last year (Time $24/acre + Fuel $20/acre + Round Up $18/acre X 5 applications). We used the sheep on a single acre of mature Norton vines in 2008. The sheep were able to control the grass and weed growth without the use of herbicide application or mowing. The sheep offset the $310 per acre in direct cash cost. At this rate of return we anticipate breaking even on the start-up costs from incorporating the sheep in the year 2011. However we expect their efficiency to increase in year two and beyond, as these same sheep will be mature and graze more land per unit. Ultimately they could double their efficiency and reduce the time to break even in half.
    • SOCIAL
    o Indirect value to marketing and public relations – We also saw a slight increase in families visiting the winery to see the sheep once we released the kick-off press release and a local newspaper and Web site published the press release. While an exact monetary value for this has been somewhat hard to determine, it has resulted in additional income to our farm’s bottom line.
    o Increased awareness of sustainable agriculture – There is growing interest among the Midwestern grape growing industry about all areas of sustainability, including environmental, economic, and social. As producers are able to see the benefits of reduced labor, reduced herbicide and less soil erosion, they may be more likely to adopt this – as well as other – environmental, economic and socially sustainable practices on their operations.

    DISCUSSION
    Overall, we learned that the incorporation of Olde English Babydoll sheep into vineyard management is economical and viable. As a result we expanded our project to include 5 more sheep this year and expanded the area where they can graze by an additional one acre. Hopefully other vineyard managers in the Midwest will also see the benefits and may be more inclined to adopt this – as well as other – sustainable practices on their operation.

    In addition, since so many people told us this wouldn’t work prior to starting the project (and it obviously did) we have become much more inclined to implement sustainable practices in our operation going forward.

    OUTREACH
    This year we shared the information from our project in the following ways:
    • Kick-off press release – We distributed a press release providing an overview of the plans and project to local media, general agriculture media, as well as targeted vineyard trade media. In addition, we posted the release on www.missouriwinecountry.com.

    • Media/Press tour – We hosted a media tour (in conjunction with AgriMissouri) where five editors from consumer-based, national magazines came to tour the vineyard and see the sheep in action.

    • Brochure/flyer – The results of the project were summarized into a concise, one-page brochure/flyer that was distribute to other producers and consumers at field days, annual meetings, and on-site visits.

    • Viticulture Field Day – To help share information with viticulturalists in our local area, we – in conjunction with the Platte County Extension and the University of Missouri viticulture program –hosted a field day on our farm. The brochure/flyer was distributed at this event.

    • Web site posting – The brochure/flyer was also posted on Jowler Creek’s Web site (www.jowlercreek.com).

    • Sheep Shearing Party – To share what we are doing with other sheep producers in the area (as well as consumers in the Kansas City metro) we hosted an event on April 25, 2009 where people could come watch us sheer our sheep. At the same time, we explained how we use the sheep in the vineyard and the benefits we’ve seen with using the sheep. The brochure/flyer was distributed at this event.

    • YouTube Video – We developed a short video to highlight using sheep in the vineyard and the benefits we’ve seen. It can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SLbdJnIiRE. So far 646 people have viewed the video.

    • State Grape Grower Association Meetings – We attended both the Missouri and Nebraska state grape grower association meetings. At the Nebraska meeting, we gave a 45-minute presentation outlining the results of our project.

    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.