Sheep with Jobs

May 12, 2008 at 6:32 am 1 comment

We © Working Sheep

A news release from UC Davis states that:

For centuries, farmers have used sheep to graze down unwanted vegetation but, unfortunately, the animals would also snack on crops. So the University of California Cooperative Extension is trying to teach the animals more useful eating habits.

“We have a project to train sheep to have an aversion to grape leaves,” said Morgan Doran, Solano County livestock advisor and project leader. “If sheep avoid grapes, they can graze the floor of a vineyard, providing farmers an alternative to using herbicides and mowing.”

One dose of lithium chloride gives sheep a mild stomach ache
and trains them to avoid grapevines and focus on the weeds below.
Photo by Morgan P. Doran/UCCE Solano County

And in more from the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources News and Information Outreach we learn that:

The sheep training research has many potential benefits for grape producers and sheep herd managers. Sheep weed control fits guidelines for organic production, in which no artificial pesticides or fertilizers are used, and biodynamic production, a system that builds on the organic philosophy with additional natural and holistic management practices. Conventional farmers may also want to look into the use of trained sheep for vegetation management.

“In very wet years, farmers may not be able to get tractors into the vineyard to mow or apply herbicides,” Doran said. “The sheep can easily get in and clear the vegetation regardless of mud and rain.”

In dry years, vineyards provide an additional food source for sheep.

“There is a tremendous amount of feed growing on the floor of the vineyard, so it gives a sheep producer an alternative feed source when traditional feed sources on the range may be low. The producer can then conserve food for the summer or fall,” Doran said.

The farm advisors working on the project believe their research could have far-ranging implications, including orchard weed management and making use of the space between trees in a young planting to grow livestock feed.

The University researchers aren’t the first group to come up with this idea.  Sheep have been used to graze weeds down in French vineyards for more than a century.  But since they have a tendency to eat the vines along with the weeds, to prevent damage they were only used when the vines were dormant or to clear leaves for to aid in ripening after the fruit had set.

Special, miniature sheep that are too short to reach mature vines have also been used in the United States and some vineyards employ shepherds and sheepdogs to keep the sheep moving and prevent them from eating vines.

Sheep, sheepdogs, wine and biodynamic farming – its a very good thing.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs, science. Tags: , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  May 12, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    That’s it! The integrated system for our new farm.

    Ken and I will become vitners.

    We’ll grow a fine Western Pennsylvania Ripple, which will rival the world-famous Ohio Catawba for its bouquet of Dubble Bubble topped by turpentine and crankcase notes — with a throaty wet sandpaper and aluminum filings finish.

    I know Mark will abandon his California favorites to stock a cellar with our Ewe Won’t Believe It vintage.

    FWIW, I have a quite old paper on the use of lithium chloride to induce food aversion in wild coyotes — in this case, coincidentally, mutton. It worked. Coyotes could not be trained to avoid sheep with pain, but nausea worked well. Makes perfect sense when you think about adaptive behavior, how any animal’s brain is wired for survival. (Coyotes can be trained to avoid certain *places* with pain, but a sheep found elsewhere is lunch.)

    There’s a good use for a veterinary behaviorist — develop and promulgate a safe, effective protocol for inducing taste aversions in dogs, to be used for critical cases of a taste for things that will kill the dog, such as antifreeze, chocolate, or, much as I hate to say it, poop.

    Because almost every trainer who has been around a while has encountered an owner who is prepared to “euthanize” a dog for persistent coprophagia, or who dumps the dog at the pound for said vice. Coprophagia won’t kill the dog, but squeamish owners will.

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