Between the vines: In Livermore vineyards, sheep a great way to manage vegetation

Valley Journal/Times Herald -- a valuable repost

Between the Vines is a biweekly column on wine and winemaking in the Livermore Valley region. This column was contributed by Allison Batteate, owner of Batteate BabyDolls, a member of the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association.

How do sheep help Livermore Valley vineyards?

Sheep have been used in agriculture for centuries to control unwanted vegetation. My sheep -- the Batteate BabyDolls -- are a miniature breed short enough (24" at the shoulder) to fit under the irrigation drip lines in vineyards.

I have experience with natural resources and applying herbicides from my work with EBMUD as a ranger and gardener and with the Contra Costa Water District, but the BabyDolls entered my life as pets.

I started collecting miniature farm animals in 2009 to delight my granddaughters. I had Shetland ponies, a miniature donkey, a potbellied pig, dwarf rabbits and a pygmy goat. Then I wondered about miniature sheep and discovered the Olde English Babydoll Southdown breed from England. Their short stature makes them different from standard breeds of sheep. Including this year's lambs, I now own 86 Babydoll sheep. I bought 17 from Idaho, Oregon, Petaluma and Martinez and the rest I've raised on our ranch in Livermore.

The timing for sheep in the vineyards is after harvest in September or October through to bud break in March or April. The sheep aren't agile enough to climb on the vines, but they will eat what they can by lifting their heads, so we try to move out once leaves start to grow on the vines.

My sheep will eat almost anything. We contain them with solar-powered electric netting fence in small areas and move them once they have eaten everything. It generally takes 15 sheep a week to clean up one acre. I send the sheep along with two livestock guardian dogs. The Batteate BabyDolls have worked at several local vineyards including Rodrigue Molyneaux, Les Chenes Estate Vineyards, Page Mill Winery and Concannon Vineyard.

Other methods of vegetation control for vineyards include mechanical (tractors, mowing and tilling), chemical (herbicides), and manual (hand pulling or using hand tools). Mechanical methods burn fossil fuels and generally cause noise and air pollution. Chemical methods have their place, but many herbicides are harmful to amphibians and should be used carefully. Manual methods can be expensive -- sheep don't require worker's comp or union dues. Unkempt vegetation under grapevines can harbor pests that damage vines and makes them more susceptible to frost and mildew. Grazing is a sustainable method of vegetation management that works well, especially for organic vineyards. The sheep even distribute free "fertilizer" throughout the vineyard!