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Introducing Our Newest Orchard Residents... Sheep!

A Dorper Sheep grazing in our orchard

We welcome to our orchard our newest residents - sheep! That's right, we have welcomed a Flock of Fluffy Friends to help us maintain and nurture our thriving orchard. Although we love seeing their "Fuzzy Faces" they will actually play a crucial role in the ecosystem of our orchard moving forward. They will be managing the vegetation under our orchard canopy and contributing to soil enrichment by cycling nutrients.

In addition to our burgeoning flock, we also are excited to welcome KRONK:

Kronk, the llama, keeps a watchful eye over the sheep grazing in our orchard.

The handsome llama will serve as friend and protector to the flock. Although llamas are quite gentle and friendly, they are both imposing and very protective of their found family. We do have coyotes that pass through our orchard, and while the electric fence is an effective deterrent, the sheep will be much safer with their faithful friend by their side.

Why Introduce Sheep to an Orchard?

Introducing sheep to an orchard may seem to be an outdated practice, but it offers numerous benefits. First and foremost, the sheep will play an important role in managing the vegetation in our orchard. They have a voracious appetite, and will help keep the vegetation at a manageable height. This will allow us to reduce or eliminate running the tractor in the orchard for mowing or tillage. Because we will not need to remove the vegetation mechanically, we can expect to keep some ground cover, keeping our soils cool and protecting the all important soil life.

Additionally, sheep contribute to soil enrichment through by "cycling" nutrients. As they graze, sheep naturally fertilize the soil with their droppings. These droppings are a rich source of organic matter and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy plant growth.

But more importantly, grazing according to the principles of holistic management will not remove vegetation, but will actually stimulate the regrowth of the native grasses and our cover crop.

The sheep's constant movement across the orchard floor helps keep the nutrients cycling, and redistributes these nutrients evenly. This nhances soil fertility and promotes the overall health of the orchard ecosystem. When managed properly, there is a magical dance that happens between grazing animals, vegetation, and the soil microbes that we are excited to see play out over the coming months and years.

A Day-One Catastro-Sheep!

Although we knew there would be much learning in the field and challenges to face, we weren't expecting to be faced with them so soon!

In advance of their arrival, we had prepared a large paddock outside of the orchard for the sheep to "learn the ropes" of life on lush pasture (and the electric fence, of course!) It turned out that introducing our new friends to a novel environment, and meeting their protector, Kronk, at the same time was a bit too much to ask...

We had turned off the electric fence for but a brief moment while we let them into the paddock. When they left the trailer they were greeted by their strange new friend with the very long neck. Unsure of what to make of the situation, they decided to bolt!

At first one sheep jumped through the (currently powered down) fence then a few more followed. The llama chased after, hoping to get a look at his new brothers and very soon we found ourselves with a fence in need of mending and our whole flock on the loose.

What we had hoped to be a joyous occasion turned into a catastrophe (a catastro-sheep, if you will.)

A flock of sheep meeting Kronk The Llama, one of the sheep gets spooked and jumps through the fence.

We called in all of the friends and family we had nearby and spent the rest of the hot spring afternoon herding the sheep back into their corral - in the end we succeeded and got everyone back home.

They have since learned that their new home is safe and are overjoyed when we come out to let them on to fresh pasture. While it took a while for them to warm up to their big brother, the sheep are now enamored with Kronk and follow him wherever he goes!

Creating a Safe and Comfortable Environment for Sheep in the Orchard

Creating a safe and comfortable environment for sheep in the orchard is essential for their well-being and the success of the orchard-sheep  relationship. Here are some key factors to consider when setting up the orchard to accommodate sheep:

1. Grazing Areas: We divide the orchard rows into grazing lanes and open up fresh pasture for them every day. This prevents overgrazing in one area and promotes healthier regrowth of grass and plants. We use temporary electric fencing to create these grazing lanes.

2. Shelter and Shade: While in the orchard, the sheep spend the afternoons resting in the shade of our trees. Later in the summer, they will be moved onto open pasture behind our orchard. We will need to ensure that they have access to shade every day, which we will move with our fencing.

3. Fresh Water: Sheep are notoriously picky about the water they drink, and will stop drinking if the water becomes contaminated with dust, has algae, or even if a member of the flock decides to take a "bath". We clean and refresh the water troughs regularly to keep our new family happy and healthy.

Managing the Grazing Patterns of Sheep in an Orchard

Efficiently managing the grazing patterns of sheep in an orchard is crucial to maximize the benefits they bring to the ecosystem while maintaining the health of the orchard. Here are some strategies for effective grazing management:

1. Adaptive Grazing: We implement a  grazing system where the orchard is divided into multiple grazing lanes and moved daily. Regular moves prevent overgrazing, reduce the need to treat for parasites with toxins, and allow for grass regrowth.

2. Grazing Density: It's a bit of an art to keep the sheep grouped closely to ensure even grazing without over grazing. We adjust the stocking density based on the condition of the orchard, as well as the availability of forage.

3. Grazing Time: We want the sheep to spend as little time in an area as possible, which is why we move them daily onto fresh forage. The previously grazed areas are left with plenty of "recovery time", where the grasses re-grow and the nutrients are allowed to cycle.

Looking to The Future of Agriculture

Introducing sheep to our orchard will offer a multitude of benefits, but we won't stop there. Our goal is to share the benefits of grazing animals integrated into well managed agricultural sytems and encourage more holistic management of our agricultural systems.

These woolly wonders serve as natural weed controllers, contribute to soil enrichment, and provide an eco-friendly alternative to traditional herbicides and pesticides. Their presence adds charm and character to the farm while promoting a healthier and greener future.

When farms consider introducing sheep to their systems, it's important to choose suitable sheep breeds, create a safe and comfortable environment, and implement effective grazing management strategies. By monitoring their health and well-being, their continued contribution to the farming ecosystem will be ensured.


Patrick Martin

Frantoio Grove