The biggest factor for producing a good bottle of wine is the quality of the grapes with which you start. Quality can be affected by various factors, including weather, soil health, time of harvest and pruning method. Today, sheep are increasingly being used for their natural ability to improve the quality of the land they graze by cycling nutrients back into the soil as well as controlling vegetation and acting as a natural fertilizer.
In addition, many vineyards in the United States are being farmed with regenerative agriculture in mind, through no-till practices and the use of cover crops. Coupling these regenerative agriculture practices with sheep grazing helps improve soil health, which can lead to better quality grapes for producing wine.
Jared Llyod is a fifth-generation Coloradan rancher living in Oregon who sees the benefits of sheep grazing firsthand. “The soil health directly affects plant health,” says Jared. “One of the things that particularly piqued our interest is this transition of subsoil microbial communities from mostly bacterial-dominated to fungal-dominated. One of the fascinating things that they're finding in California is that fungal-dominated soils are boosting plant resistance to fungal pathogens, mildew and bunch rot.”
Jared’s inspiration for his work is rooted in his heritage. “I’m modeling my production system similar to the way my great grandpa would have done things. It’s still efficient and produces a high-quality product.”
After starting his own small property grazing business, he was mentored by Robert Irwin of Kaos Sheep Company in California, where he got a deep dive into the world of vineyard grazing. Through his work with the Irwins, Jared’s understanding of the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and animals grew, and he was able to take that knowledge back to his business.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 impacts and drought, Jared had to sell his business and went to work with Results Partners, overseeing the animal and ranching side of the business. There, Jared is part of a larger team that provides vineyard management and development services to over 3,000 acres of vineyards across the Northwest.
Jared works with the vineyard managers to graze sheep from mid-October to early April, after the harvest season and before bud break. He describes the grazing process as “mimicking the natural movements of animals – high-intensity grazing for a short duration followed by a long rest, which leads to improved herd health.” The rotational grazing systems he uses have virtually eliminated the threat of parasites, reduced inputs and provide a high-quality food source for the sheep.
In addition to improving soil health, sheep also can browse the sub-canopy vegetation and vine suckers, helping maintain pristine vineyard rows, while reducing or even replacing cultivation and herbicide application. In fact, using sheep to graze is gaining popularity in organic vineyard and orchard production systems as a natural alternative to herbicides and pesticides.
“Our motivation for bringing sheep into the vineyards was mostly to find a holistic, sustainable approach for land management under the vines and within our fallow grounds,” says Evan Strode, director of vineyard operations at Results Partners. “We have seen benefits with grazing sheep in the vineyards through the byproducts of the fertilizer, the decreased use of tractors and equipment, and decreased human labor hours with the management of vegetation.”
The work that American lamb farmers and ranchers, like Jared, are doing through sheep grazing is improving the health, productivity and biodiversity of American pastures and rangelands, ensuring the sustainability of the land for future generations.
Jared sums up the role sheep play in this way: “Sheep are positively impacting the environment throughout the U.S. by reducing fire fuel loads, by restoring native habitats and reducing noxious weed species, by grazing cover crops and increasing soil fertilityand providing a high-quality protein source for people to eat.”