Organic Weeding Trials Completed
By Robert Mock
(Originally published in 1994)

During this past spring thru fall, organic weeding trials in a variety of different orchards, and with a variety of fruits, nuts, and berries, were conducted in Oregon.  Jacque Rogers provided the sheep and monitored the results.

The only prior information using the babydolls as weeders came from the gentleman from whom I purchased one of my first flocks.  When I went to purchase the sheep, they were in the blueberry fields.  It looked like a park, with all of the bushes trimmed up about 30” from the ground, and the grass looked like mowed lawn.  When I mentioned how pretty the fields looked and that it must take a lot of labor to keep them that way, his response was that he really did nothing, that the sheep took care of it.  He said that he had kept the sheep for more than forty years for that reason.  Although he had tried other breeds, including the larger modern day Southdowns, they had not worked out.  They destroyed the bark and killed the bushes, were hard on the fences, and the rams were a danger to he and his wife and to the pickers.  The sheep provided organic fertilizer, and he did not supplement with chemicals.  His organic berries brought premium prices from his “pick your own” customers who also enjoyed the sheep.  He said that many came back to buy locker lambs or lambs for pets.  His organic locker lambs also brought a premium price, giving him another cash crop.  He summarized the story by saying that the sale of lambs paid for all the needs of the sheep and that he no longer needed to pay labor or maintain equipment or purchase chemicals for the fields.  Other advantages were the sale of wool, very minimum care for the sheep, and in time spent.  They could be gone for any number of days needing only a neighbor to come and check the water troughs.

When I began to think of how we, as breeders, would market the excess ram lambs without sending them to slaughter, I though again about the blueberry fields.  From reading all the organic gardening magazines I could find, it seemed that many growers of all types of organic fruits and berries were looking for some type of weed control that was not labor intensive and was organic.  And a good approach to the problem was right out in my pasture.  This elderly gentleman who sold me his sheep had been using a very workable and practical solution to the problem for over forty years.

After discussing the issue with Jacque Rogers, it was decided that additional weeding trials need to be done to see how the sheep would work with other varieties of fruits and berries.  The babydolls were placed in several locations with different types of fruits, nuts, and berries.  In some cases, other sheep breeds were placed with them to see if other breeds would also work.  In all cases the other breeds had to be removed quickly to keep them from eating bark and vines.

Reports came back virtually the same for each trial the babydoll sheep were placed in:

The babydolls were also cost effective.  Initial setup cost was higher than manual labor, which  included the cost of sheep at the rate of 5 sheep per acre, fencing, shelter, and winter feed for the first year.  However, after the initial startup cost, following years were only a fraction of hired labor expenses, and the sheep were deemed to be more reliable and often more pleasant to work with.  The sheep, if well cared for, should work for a minimum of 10 years.  This was based on the use of altered males.  If the orchardist wishes to raise sheep, then there is the added income of the breeder sheep for sale.

As an added note, gooseberries and currants were caged in mesh wire cages similar to tomato cages.  The sheep kept the leaves cleaned off the sides of the cages, forcing the fruiting canes to grow up like a fountain out of the top.  This made picking much easier without stooping and searching thru the thorns for the berries.

The trials were considered successful and gave us much information to pass on to others.  Interest in the sheep as weeders has been very promising.  We would suggest that each breeder contact organic growers in your area with this information.