Babydoll Sheep Integrate Wine Country
By Deb Kiger

Kiger Family Vineyards is a producer of premium syrah grapes in the heart of Sonoma County wine country.  My husband, John, and I farm the vineyard ourselves and also live on the property.  It is important to us to build farming practices that support our goals of a healthy and environmentally sustainable vineyard.  In early 2007, we purchased a small flock of sheep, Olde English Babydoll Sheep, to graze in the vineyard, providing a natural, organic way to manage the planted cover crop, fertilize the soil, and eliminate the use of herbicides.

Our “Going Green” is more than just in keeping with a growing popular trend.  It has provided a solution to real, ongoing challenges in managing our small vineyard.  The results over these first few months have proved very promising; the experience of caring for and observing these wooly animals has also changed our lives.

Planted in 2002, our 3.5 acres of grapevines are situated on a steep, rocky hillside, with an average grade of nearly 17%.  The steepness of the slope promotes good drainage of our 33” of average annual rainfall, nearly all of which falls in the winter while the vineyard is dormant.  The hillside is also prone to soil erosion and water pooling in some low-lying areas of vine rows.

We broadcast seed each year after the harvest to grow a winter cover of natural grasses and other nutrient-rich materials.  These cover crops help to eliminate soil runoff, nourish the soil, and hopefully crowd out many species of broadleaf weeds.  They also create a big challenge each spring: the grasses are at least knee-high just as it’s time to start pruning the grapevines for the new growing season.

Having to slog through tall, wet grass during this physically demanding activity is only part of the problem.  The long woody canes we prune from the grapevines are placed and bundled on the ground.  They quickly get entangled with and overgrown by the still growing grasses, making it nearly impossible to gather the bundles and move them out of the vineyard.

Finally, as the vines begin growing, and the winter rains end, grasses and weeds compete with the grapevines for the available groundwater.  While grasses between the rows can be mowed, grasses under the vines require expensive specialized equipment or time consuming hand mowing with the gas powered string trimmers.

The basic answer is clear.  An efficient start to the growing season requires removal of the grasses!  For conservation of labor, gas, water, and the electricity needed to operate the pump-based irrigation system (we want to wait as long as possible before starting irrigation), we turned to sheep to help manage the grasses and weeds in the vineyard.

The process of sheep “mowing” the vineyard offers a variety of benefits, including:

We selected babydoll sheep for the task over goats and other larger breeds of sheep.  While goats eat a lot more grass for their size, they also eat everything they see, including grapevines.  They also eat down to the ground, whereas sheep leave stubble that will continue to grow and eventually go to seed.  The babydoll sheep, compared to larger sheep, do eat less grass, but they are small enough to walk underneath the lowest trellis wire.

Results and Lessons Learned
With only about ten weeks of having sheep in the vineyard, we observed a significant reduction in the height of grass out in the vineyard compared to previous years.  We still have to extrapolate what the results could have been if the right number of sheep had been living in the vineyard over the course of the entire dormant period.

The babydoll sheep have integrated very well into our healthy, sustainable farming plans, and we are confident that with what we have learned so far, we will see more positive progress in our grass elimination and soil management programs.  The sheep have also added diversity and new enjoyment to our work routine.  It has been at times humorous, alarming, calming, and even miraculous as we’ve watched the sheep become part of the landscape.  For more information and photos, or to contact us, please visit the Kiger Family Vineyards website at