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Sheep ranchers look for new revenue

Anne Knowles

The American sheep industry is working

to organize an association or cooperative

to help foster the use of livestock for

weed control.

The goal is to promote a promising

business for the sheep ranching industry,

which is struggling due to imports from

New Zealand and a declining sheep population

here.

“We must recognize that there are

other products than food and fiber that are

not affected by imports,” said John

Walker, resident director of research, San

Angelo Research & Extension Center at

Texas A & M University in San Angelo.

“We need to get into the environmental

management business.”

“U.S. lambs and sheep should be marketed

as natural product that has helped

restore the ecological integrity of U.S.

rangelands,” said Walker. “Imports can’t

touch that market.”

Walker was speaking at the Livestock

Grazing for Vegetation Management

Conference last week in Sparks. More

than 200 sheep ranchers, academics and

representatives from government agencies

attended the two-day conference hosted

by the University of Nevada Reno.

The conference, which featured scientists

and grazing contractors as speakers,

was designed to prove the case for using

livestock, primarily sheep, to control weed

infestation, said Hudson Glimp, a professor

with UNR’s Department of Animal

Biotechnology, who organized the event.

“We have 30 million acres in Nevada

that are seriously at risk of losing all native

plants and species,” said Glimp.

The practice, though, has faced opposition

from environmentalists and government

agencies, neither of which understand

the benefits of using livestock to

clear large and often inaccessible tracts of

land overrun with weeds, according to

conference participants.

“We are the most environmentally

sound solution to weed control,” said

Georgia Edworthy, owner of Montegal

Creek Inc., a grazing contractor from

Bluffton, Alberta, Canada, and a speaker

at the meeting.

The conference concluded with a call

to organize the industry in an effort to

educate, share information, develop business

practices and lobby the government.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Dick

Henry, owner of Bellwether Solutions, a

sheep-grazing contractor based in

Concord, N.H., who was a featured

speaker at the conference. Henry moves

his herd of sheep to Florida during the

winter, where he has contracts with the

state to remove kudzu, the fast growing

vine that plagues the southeast United

States. (Henry said in optimum weather

kudzu vines can grow a foot an hour.)

“It’s time to form an association,” said

Henry. He suggested that such an industry

association focus on education for both

clients and producers; acting as a clearinghouse

for contracts; government lobbying;

and industry research.

The American Sheep Industry

Association, an existing trade group, is

funded specifically to deal with issues of

wool production, which prevents it from

doing work on the use of sheep for environmental

management.

The industry, though, faces an uphill

battle. Edworthy said sheep ranchers in

Canada have tried to organize, too. “We

tried but people fought,” said Edworthy.

The ranchers, though, have set up a

web site that has mentors on it to help

educate producers, and producer references

for clients to verify a contractor’s

credentials. She said they had considered

certification for producers, one idea proffered

for the nascent American association,

but that wasn’t feasible.

Another sheep rancher said five producers

in Oregon had formed a cooperative

that was working well, with some

bumps along the way. One problem,

though, was that once business slowed, the

producers became worried and returned to

their agricultural roots, she said.

Sheep ranchers, said Walker and others,

need to start thinking like land managers,

not sheep herders.

“We don’t go in with the attitude of a

sheep farmer trying to find feed for our

sheep,” said Edworthy. “We provide a

service.”

Proving that service is valuable to the

right people is another obstacle. Several

representatives from government agencies,

including one from Clark County who

said he uses prisoners to pull weeds, said

they were unaware of the potential of livestock

grazing to control weeds.

Proving livestock grazing efficiencies

and cost effectiveness is only half the battle.

The Oregon cooperative sheep rancher

said initial government contracts they

were involved in said the contractor

couldn’t work on weekends or after 5 p.m.

The audience laughed.

“I had to tell them that our sheep eat 7

days a week,” she said.

Walker said the industry must come up

with prescriptions for livestock grazing

and then provide that to the government.

Other potential clients include the

forestry industry, a major user of

Montegal Creeks’ services, which needs to

protect its trees from life-threatening

weeds. Often that land, while infested

with weeds, is inaccessible by anything but

a herd of goats or sheep.

The good news for ranchers was that

much of the weed is more than just a

potential source of new revenue. It is also

highly nutritious feed for the animals.


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