Sheep ranchers look into 'targeted grazing'
Sheep rancher Don Watson, above, operates Wooly Weeders, which provides grazing services for vegetation management, a concept that is gaining popularity with landowners.
On a harvested wheat field in Yolo County, Don Watson’s “wooly weeders” hungrily chomp on a gourmet feast of invasive plants that have overtaken the property.
The landowner pre-irrigated the field to let the weeds to grow out before Watson put his sheep to work on the land. The idea is to allow the animals to clean up the field rather than using herbicides.
“This is just a symbiotic quid pro quo that we’re doing,” Watson said. “We gain on the lambs and they’ll gain from how (the lambs) are inoculating the soil with manure, which acts as a fertilizer.”
Watson, who spoke last week at a workshop on targeted grazing, currently operates two businesses: Wooly Weeders, which provides grazing services for vegetation management, and Napa Valley Lamb Co., which produces meat and wool.
Don Watson walks among his flock in a harvested wheat field in Yolo County. His sheep will eat the weeds on the property and provide manure to fertilize the land.
The California Wool Growers Association held the workshop in Woodland to help educate producers about the potential profitability, as well as the legal and financial risks, associated with adding grazing services to livestock operations.
Though still a relatively new idea, using livestock such as sheep and goats to control weeds and brush has gained attention and popularity in recent years. Watson called his grazing business a good complement to his ranching operation that provides another important revenue stream.
He said before getting into the grazing business, he was actually losing money selling meat and wool. Today, he said he nets a profit.
“It’s not something that you’re going to get rich on,” he said. “You’re going to make a living and it’s a great lifestyle, but chances are you’re not going to be very wealthy.”
He actually got into the mowing business in the 1990s quite by accident. His sheep had gotten into Robert Mondavi’s vineyard and shredded some vines. To make amends, he donated lambs to the winery. On his way out, he ran into Mondavi himself and the two struck up a conversation about sheep.
“I said, ‘If you want to turn grassland into a golf course, sheep are the ideal animals to do it,’” he said. “A few weeks later, his vineyard guys called and said, ‘When can the sheep come back?’”
Since then, his grazing business has been growing, with most clients coming to him unsolicited. He acknowledged there’s not much competition because of dwindling sheep numbers and increasing demand for more eco-friendly methods of vegetation management and land restoration. The high cost of fertilizer has also made his grazing services a cost-effective alternative for farmers, he said.
“If we could do it for 80 percent of what they would pay a machine or herbicide to do, then it would be a viable concept for us,” said Watson, who charges a minimum of $5,000 for a job. “It wouldn’t be just something green that everybody loves for the first year, but rather we’ve saved them so much money they couldn’t afford not to hire us back next year.”
Lani Malmberg, who runs Ewe4ic Ecological Services, which uses goats, also spoke about her experience in the grazing business, which she started in 1997. She referred to herself as a gypsy because she doesn’t own any land and travels throughout the Western states to wherever her services are needed.
She stressed the importance of explaining to clients goals set for a particular site and using scientific soil and plant information to show improvements that have been made. She also recommended having good dogs to herd the livestock and protect them from predators.
“Weeds are always smarter than the plants. Goats are smarter than weeds. And the only thing smarter than goats is a good border collie,” she said.
To keep her goats healthy, she said she tries to maintain at least seven varieties of plants in their diet. Goats prefer to eat weeds, though, and will eat all poisonous plants, which don’t seem to bother them, she said.
Producers interested in getting into the grazing business need to consider the legal risks and insurance requirements, said Jack Rice, an attorney with the California Farm Bureau Federation, and Paul Lewis, a sheep producer and retired insurance agent.
Lewis said producers who own property likely already have a farm/ranch policy that generally covers their liability for negligent acts, such as if their guard dog bites somebody. But for contract grazing, Lewis said producers need to contact their agent and specifically add a description or location of the property being grazed, and depending on the requirements of the property owner, add them as an additional insured.
He recommends also having a personal liability policy, which covers liability over the policy limits of the farm/ranch policy, as well as excess liability on all vehicles and equipment. And if there are employees, they must have all the necessary coverage as required by state and federal law, which may include workers’ compensation insurance, medical insurance, unemployment insurance and vehicle coverage.
Producers should also consider getting coverage for the inadvertent taking of endangered or threatened species such as a protected plant, Lewis said.
Regarding contracts, Rice said producers need to understand the difference between a typical pasture lease agreement, which is familiar to most producers who lease ground to graze their livestock, and a grazing services agreement, which is used when a producer is being hired to provide a service.
He said putting an agreement in writing allows it to be legally enforced; having an enforceable contract is highly advisable should one party not follow through.
“Grazing service is a relatively new concept. You’re going to want to get it written down and know what it is you’re signing,” he said. “You really want to make sure you understand it and that the other party understands it. If you have to look through it and talk about what it means, it’s worth it to do it.”
A panel of land managers and producers also spoke about the need for targeted grazing and its underutilization for fire fuel abatement. Producers say they face challenges getting access to public lands that need these services.
Anne Yost, a regional rangeland program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said public resistance is partly to blame. She noted that not only are resources limited in the Forest Service to pursue targeted grazing, but there are also conflicting laws and regulations that guide the management of U.S. forests.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.