Using Small Sheep in Vineyards

There are jobs that everyone associates with growing fruit. Things like harvesting are easy to romanticise, even though they can be exhausting physical labour. People also think about winter pruning. Less easy to romanticise, but personally I’d prefer to be rugged up in the rain than sweltering outside on a 35 degree summer day 🙂

The items people tend to forget are the small, annoying jobs. Things like mowing. Things like de-suckering.

Basically, there are a few options of how to manage the grass in your orchard or vineyard.

  1. You can spray chemicals to kill the grasses, and have bare soil. To me this is a bad idea. Not only do I not like strong chemicals near my food, I also know that chemicals kill off organisms in the soil that are trying to help my grapes, and my fruit trees.
  2. You can mulch to reduce the growth pressure. In some ways, this is a great idea. But you need to be careful that the mulch doesn’t touch your tree trunk, since this can encourage fungal diseases and root rot. Also, studies carried out by the Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens show that you get better water infiltration where you have growth under your trees, than when you have mulch. That’s important if you rely on rainfall or surface watering for your orchard.
  3. So you have grass, and forbs, and some clovers growing under your trees. And you just leave them there. They grow very tall, especially the grasses. Until the dense wet environment around your trunk does one of a couple of things. It either encourages rot, and kills the tree. Or it encourages a damp, warm environment that leads to disease. Plus it gives snakes a place to hide, and can be a fire risk as it dries out in Summer.
  4. Which leaves us with growing pasture right up to the tree trunk, but keeping your ground cover short. and that’s a labour cost.

We are in a high rainfall area, and in spring, our grass and other pasture species grow like mad if they’re left to their own devices for long. At my day job, we mow our vineyards every two or three weeks in Spring. If we tried doing that with our planned 5 acres of orchard and vineyard, it would take a full day every three weeks. Plus we would need to buy both a ride on mower, and an under-vine attachment as well.

That’s an expensive initial investment. And then an ongoing investment of roughly $2400 per year (I’m calculating a days wages at $200, once a month as a yearly average). And this doesn’t even begin to consider the petrol costs, financial or environmental. Nor does it consider that the use of a mower when the soil is wet will only increase compaction issues on our heavy clay.

So Matt and I are looking for another way. We are researching both geese and sheep in vineyards. Ponda Estate Winery on the Bellarine Peninsula uses sheep, as do Yealands, a famous winery in New Zealand. And Alex from Short Sheep Winery was kind enough to chat to me about the sheep that they use.

Sheep in vineyards
Finnegan, our Original Southdown ram eating grass- we hope he continues this trend once he’s in vineyard!

One of the main attractions of Babydoll Southdown sheep was their size. Part of the breed standard ensures that these sheep are 60cm or under when measured shorn, from the foot to the shoulder. They also have a short body- they aren’t as long as our Finn sheep. The combination of these two things mean that they can’t reach any where near as high to eat. Not great for our weedy pasture 😉 But fantastic for use in orchards and vineyards. Babydolls (also known as Original Southdowns are in high demand with organic growers, as they reduce, and can even completely remove the need for mowing or spraying.

And not only that! When it comes to working in a vineyard, my least favourite job ever is desuckering. This is exactly what it sounds like: going around to each and every vine, and pulling off any shoots that have sprouted out of the main stem, below the fruiting wire. It’s a relatively simple job, but one that means you have to get close to the ground. So every single vine, is a squat. And by the end of the day, you’ve done about 4000 squats and your legs are jelly. Last year, I was literally crawling from one vine to the next. Sheep in vineyards will happily eat the young shoots as they grow off the trunk, if they can reach them.

If these sheep mean no mowing, and no desuckering, they will make me a very happy woman!! Especially if they’re small enough to run year round, without being able to reach the leaf area, or fruit. Studies done with them in tagasaste show that they can reach no higher than 1.2m. On the Mornington Peninsula that’s a bit higher than the standard grape vine cordon. At Foxey’s Hangout, where I work, the fruiting wire is 80cm tall. So if I ran even these miniature sheep in the vineyard below, they would eat the fruit. In warmer regions, they don’t have a problem, as 1.2m is the standard height of the fruiting wire.

canopy height sheep in vineyards mornington peninsula
This is the vineyard where I work. It has fairly standard fruiting wire heights, and top wire heights. As you can see we mow instead of spraying.

So when I’m planting my vineyard, can I just train my grape vines a little higher? Onto a wire that sits at 1.2 meters instead of 80cm? The short answer, is no. There’s a difference in wire height because of the different amounts of sun exposure in the regions. Almost all vineyards are the same height- 6 foot is a comfortable top wire height for most people. So by raising the fruiting wire, you actually reduce the amount of room for the canopy to grow. In a warm region, the canopy, and leaves, might only need to cover 60cm, but on the Mornington Peninsula, ideally you have 1m. Losing 40cm of leaf means your grape vines will have less energy, and less fruit.

So what’s the solution? Most folks around here spray round-up. Some mow, or run traditional sheep (who can graze up to 1.5m), but only in winter, when there’s no foliage to damage. Hopefully my breeding project will result in a shorter sheep that doesn’t graze as high. And if I can raise the top foliage wire by 40cm, then I can compensate for changing fruiting wire from 80cm high to 120cm.

Of course, to raise the top wire, I need to use taller posts. These are more expensive, and harder to source. I still have research to do- we’re hoping to avoid treated pine and the chemicals that leach into the soil from them. But my hope is that the cost is more than out weighed by future savings in time and petrol. And that’s before we get onto the possible yields that you can sell from the sheep.

The only problem I’m yet to work out is reach. If my posts are higher than the standard 6 foot (out of the ground) then how will I reach the top? Currently I’m thinking of having a small step at each post. In a conventional vineyard these would cause a problem when mowing. But if we can skip mowing altogether with a well managed grazing program…. You get the idea 🙂

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