July 10, 2009
In between rows of grapevines at a Mendocino County farm in California, dozens of sheep are milling about, munching on the grass and weeds.
Sarah Cahn Bennett, co-owner of the family-owned Navarro Vineyards in Philo, Calif., says they began using the flock of 70 in June to keep the vineyard trimmed and minimize the work of tractors and manual labor.
Grazing vineyards is just one application of a growing niche industry that is harnessing the eating power of animals to control invasive weeds, maintain lawns and clear fire-prone grasses. The animals are an alternative to using machinery that burns up fossil fuels or herbicides that, in some cases, can seep into groundwater.
"It's very widespread, but there's lots of room for more application," says Sandy Tartowski, a New Mexico-based scientist in the research division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Called conservation or targeted grazing, the use is more predominant in the western United States, she said, but livestock have cleared the brush around power lines in Durham, N.H., and have been used to eat up the invasive vine kudzu in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Homeowners in California have rented out goats and sheep to gobble up vegetation near their properties that, in dry conditions, can catch fire, saai Terence McHale, policy director the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Firefighters.
Charlotte Lewis, co-owner of Living Systems Land Management in San Francisco, helps direct a herd of more than 2,200 animals to a clientele that includes homeowner's associations, local governments and businesses.
She says that sites with hillier terrain, limited access to water and the need for more fencing will drive up the price tag. When her company does a job, a shepherd lives in a trailer on site.
"We have more projects than we can do right now," Lewis said.
Reprinted in part from USA Today