Proposal for Community Sheep Flock Co-op to Maintain Village Commons and Oak Grove

UPDATE, 22 October 2018: After talking with neighbors and the community, we have updated our plan to include an area of mowed grass near the community center. This reduces the overall grazing area to 2.5 acres of grass and 3 acres of forest, meaning our maximum herd size is nineteen, but a dozen or so sheep the first year may be more reasonable. The following grazing map is approximate and subject to community input and change.

GrazingPlan-2.0


We live in the historic village of Cooksville, which centers around a 7.5-ac commons. About 3 ac is covered in an oak grove being overgrown by maples, another 4 ac is mowed grass, and about 0.5 ac of the commons is clear of underbrush and has picnic benches — an area used for community gatherings. The rest of the oaks are being choked by underbrush, including raspberries, invasives, and thousands of maple saplings. Many oaks are also being shaded by shadow-tolerating maples that have grown up through the oak canopies. The Cooksville Tree Committee (a subgroup of the Cooksville Community Center) has recently begun a new management plan to clear out the underbrush to give the oaks a chance to survive.

Scott Johnson, director of the Low Technology Institute and Cooksville resident, is proposing to augment this management plan with a community-owned flock of sheep for three reasons. First, grazing animals are nature’s answer to keeping a forest’s understory open and a grassland cropped. Second, using sheep in this way will save the town the thousands it spends to mow the commons and clear the brush from the grove. Third, in addition to saving money by providing these services, the herd will pay a dividend through the production of lambs, meat, and fiber.

Grazing Management Plan

The sheep will be moved around the commons in a systematic way with the goals of a) providing enough pasture for the sheep during the grazing season, b) maintaining a cover of cropped grass on the commons, and c) maintaining an open understory below the oak grove. This grazing plan is based on information from the UW Extension, Vermont Extension, Homer Soil and Water Conservation, and Better Return Programme.

A rectangle of pasture or forest will be isolated with an electric net fence. The fence will be energized by a solar charger and is mostly to keep coyotes away. Approximately 800–1,000 ft of fence will enclose an area between 0.5 and 1 ac. This style of fence is secured by step-in posts and will move with the flock around the commons.

All sheep in the flock will be herded into the fenced area daily from their paddock, or kept on pasture overnight if the weather is fine. The pasture’s grasses will start at about 8–10 in high. The time the sheep will spend in any one place will vary depending on speed of grass growth, rain, etc. and the height of grass is the determining factor for moving the herd. The sheep will be moved in an area every five days or so to avoid dead spots in any one enclosure. They will be moved off of an area once the grasses are grazed down to 3–4 in high. This is about 1,500–2,000 lb of dry matter per acre and may take 15–30 days for the sheep to chow down in a cycle of a few 1/2-ac plots. Each time the fence will be then moved to an adjacent square. Manure in the old square will quickly dissipate into the soil with the first rain but co-op members or villagers can rake it up and compost it if they like. Any greatly uneven grass will be trimmed level. The sheep will not return to this area for at least a month or until the grass is 10 in high (when three leaves have emerged from grazed stems), whichever is greater. This more-labor-intensive management increases the efficiency of the forage and helps maintain more even pasturage across the commons.

IMG_3563.JPG
Pastures at the Hiemke farm in different states of grazing: on the right, a recently grazed pasture, and on the left, a new pasture being grazed by sheep.

The sheep will also be moved through the understory of the oak grove, where they will be encouraged to eat sapling maple, invasives, and other smaller vegetation to help preserve the oaks. Oak saplings will be protected by fencing. They’ll graze the forest heavily in the spring and fall to deter growth and at least every six weeks over the summer. They’ll always be grazed in grass directly before being moved to a forest square to help bring some grass seeds along with their manure. This method can maintain an open understory, as shown in the following photo, taken at Cody Hiemke’s farm, where he runs sheep on the right side of this picture.

IMG_3566.JPG
Photo showing the effectiveness of sheep grazing under oaks at the Hiemke farm.

The 0.5-ac picnic area will be maintained by periodic mowing, not grazing. Across Church Street, on another adjacent parcel, or in the back of the commons the sheep will have a fenced-in paddock with shelters for them to enter during inclement weather if they choose. During the winter, the sheep may be confined to the forest area as a “sacrificial paddock” where the underbrush will be heavily grazed and supplemental hay will be fed; they will have shelter available in this area. The following aerial image shows an approximation of this plan.

GrazingPlan

In addition to water, sheep will be given free choice chelated minerals and salt, all on a mobile base to move with the fence. Grain will be fed as needed and to pregnant ewes. Hay will be fed in the winter as grazing becomes unavailable. In the fall, some of the green may be left to grow up a little in order to make hay for the winter before it snows.

We have seven grazable acres — four on pasture and three in the oaks — which means our maximum stocking density is 25 ewes (4/ac on pasture and 3/ac on forest), but a more reasonable density, especially in the first year is 16–20 ewes.

By the Numbers

We’re continually updating the following enterprise budget. At this point, it is approximate and subject to change. First come the fixed, one-time start-up costs and expenses. These include fencing, feeders, structures, and labor, but also the income from maintaining the commons and co-op buy-in fees. The variable start-up costs and income are the cost and number of sheep as well as number of shares for sale (150 max). Finally come the annual costs and income, including grain, hay, dividends, and sales of lambs, meat, and fiber.

Start-Up Costs

Fixed Start-Up Costs/Income Description
-$1,000 – Fencing about 1,000 ft of electric netting fencing with solar charger, posts, etc.
-$500 – Feeders and Small Equipment
-$2,500 – Structure(s) and Fencing (200 sq ft total (20 sheep × 10 sq ft/sheep) × $10/sq ft) + paddock fencing ($500)
-$500 – Organizer labor 100 hr × $5/hr
+$3,000 Mowing contract Pay (year 1)
+$100 × c Co-op buy-in fee
$-1,000 + ($100 × c) Total Fixed Cost/Income
Variable Start-Up Costs/Income Description
-$350±25 per sheep × g General herd
+50 sheep share × s Sheep share
g = s × 0.143±0.025
Annual Running Costs/Income Description
-$120±20/sheep × t ($2,800 max) Hay, grain, salt & minerals, vet, shearing, organizer’s hours
+$200±50/sheep × g ($3,000 min if g = 20) General herd lamb, meat, fiber sales
+$100/sheep × i ($2,000 if i = 20) Individually owned sheep maintenance
-$50±50 × s Sheep share dividend
+$2,500–1,000 Mowing contract
g + i = t; t ≤ 20

c = co-op members, g = general herd sheep, s = general herd shares, t = total sheep, i = individually owned sheep

The following examples assume a ram visit for insemination and typical birthrates (125 percent the first year), culling (10 percent), and losses. Coyotes, disease, and the learning curve may decrease actual outcomes. Birthrates will increase as the ewe lambs mature.

Sheep can be owned by the co-op (example 3), individuals (example 2) or a mix of both (example 1). See co-op section for details.

Example 1 — 50/50 General Herd/Individually Owned: 20 sheep (10 general [70 shares], 10 individual) cost $2,000–2,800 to keep. The general heard earns $1,500–2,500 in sales plus $1,000 maintenance fee for the rest of the herd and $2,500–1,000 mowing contract ($3,500–6,000 income), leaving $700–4,000 left over at the end of the year which can be paid out 50/50 in dividends ($5–28.57 per share) and reinvested in the co-op’s general fund ($350–2,000) to buy new sheep and maintain equipment as needed. Individually owned animals may be paying owners $200±50/sheep, depending on performance.

Example 2 — All Individually Owned: 20 sheep (all individually owned) cost $2,000–2,800 to keep. The $2,000 maintenance fee and $1,000–2,500 mowing contract ($3,000–4,500 income), leaves $200–1,700 at the end of the year, with the remainder reinvested in the co-op’s general fund to buy and maintain equipment. Individually owned animals may be paying owners $200±50/sheep (remember that this larger number helps recoup your $100/sheep annual maintenance fee).

Example 3 — All General Herd: 20 sheep (140 shares) cost $2,000–2,800 to keep and earn  $3,000–5,000 plus $1,000–2,500 mowing contract ($4,000–8,500 income), leaving $1,200–6,500 left over at the end of the year which can be paid out 50/50 in dividends ($4.28–23.21 per share) and reinvested in the co-op’s general fund ($600–3,250) to buy new sheep and maintain equipment as needed.

Co-op Organization

Those interested in being part of the co-op should have a meeting to hash out exact details (email us to be included), but I am currently proposing the following organization. Co-op members pay a buy-in fee and then either buy shares of the “general herd” or purchase their own sheep to add to the flock. All co-op members are also responsible for 10 hours of work with the herd through the year (or may pay $20/hr to cover for unworked hours; not all work is physical, such as accounting). The buy-in fee of $100 goes to buying equipment and housing for keeping the herd.

General Herd

If one buys in to the general herd, s/he pays $50/share after the co-op buy-in fee. This money is used to fund a portion of the herd not specifically owned by other members. For example, if twenty shares are bought, which would support approximately three ewes, and if those ewes produce four lambs and fleeces, selling for $1000, each share would pay back $25 (50/50 pay-out/reinvestment). NOTE: These are round numbers and do not represent any actual estimate of share price or dividend.

Individual Sheep Purchase

Some people may want to buy a specific sheep or have ownership of a certain animal. After paying the co-op buy-in fee, a member can buy a sheep to be added to the herd. A maintenance fee for each sheep of $100/year will be required, but this greater investment may be recouped more quickly, as the member gets the full sale price of lambs, fleece, and/or meat from their animal if they source the sale (or they can add the lamb to the flock, if space is available for a 10 percent cut), with lambs selling for $150-350 each, depending on breed and some ewes giving twins.

Co-op Responsibilities

The co-op and its organizer are responsible for the care of the herd, as well as the sourcing and sale of sheep and sheep products for the general herd. For the moment, it seems best to work with a single breed of sheep from a local source. I’ve met with Cody Hiemke, who comes highly recommended and is a board member of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders’ Co-op. He keeps Shropshire sheep north of Stoughton. He has agreed to be a mentor for our group. If we have all Shropshire sheep from him or another approved breeder, he will help us with a ram and work with us in selling the lambs, meat, and fleece, if needed.

The co-op will own the fencing, feed, feed and water containers, shelter, and general herd. The co-op will ensure that the sheep are cared for daily: morning feeding and/or moving to pasture, filling water containers, moving fences, monitoring grazing levels, monitoring sheep health, moving back to predator-proof paddock and shelter in evenings. The organizer will carry out these chores on most days, but members can complete these chores towards their 10 annual hours (especially when the organizer is occasionally out of town).

The co-op will also organize veterinary care, shearing, sale of fleeces and lambs from the general herd, and other seasonal tasks. Members can be as involved or “hands off” as they like with these tasks. An email list will be made to help organize and notify members of updates.

The co-op will mow a half acre of grass under the oaks near the picnic tables. Members are asked to use their own lawn mowers to do this and the time spent mowing counts towards his/her 10 hours.

The co-op will maintain a bank account with records available to any member at any time. The organizer will be paid a nominal consideration for his/her daily and annual responsibilities (starting at $5/hr for the first year, negotiable after that). The co-op can operate under the umbrella of the Low Technology Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that can create a bank account, apply for grants, and otherwise act as a sponsoring fiscal agency.

Those interested in joining the co-op and/or helping to plan to structure, should email us at lowtechinstitute@gmail.com.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I still walk my dog on the commons?

Yes! If the sheep are on the commons, they’ll be in a white net fence with some electricity running through it to deter coyotes. The commons has 4 ac of grass and the fenced-in area will move around but only cover a maximum of 1 ac at a time. The sheep won’t bother your dog and vice versa.

Won’t the sheep leave poo everywhere for me to step in?

Not really. First, sheep poo is low odor, pretty dry, and in little pellets or clumps. Second, it absorbs water and breaks down pretty readily in the rain, meaning that after they move from one fenced-in acre to the next, their “leavings” will disintegrate quickly and fertilize the grass. Most of the poo will be in the currently fenced-off acre, meaning you won’t be walking there anyway. Plus, we’ll try to move them just before rain is forecast, when possible, to help speed the dissipation of any droppings. With the density of sheep we’re keeping, manure will not build up as often happens in dairy operations, for example.

Isn’t this an unusual idea?

No, not really. Historically, sheep were used to create lawns — only since the late 1800s have we used lawn mowers to make them. “Commons” referred to communal land where any resident could graze animals. Historically, shep were kept in New York’s Central Park and even on the White House lawn.

Many entities use sheep to keep lawns. Whistling Straits have sheep on their golf course. Sheep are currently grazing public parks and greenspaces. A quick internet search turned up herds in Paris (also here), London, Turin (saved €30,000), Montreal, Brookhaven, Fort Saskatchewan, Georgia Tech, the electric utility of New Hampshire, and many more.  Business Insider notes that it is a good way for municipalities to save money. The Wisconsin DNR is using cattle to graze its own lands.

Can I take some manure for my garden?

Yes with three caveats. First, this is at your own risk. Second, be sure to compost it (see here, for example). Third, only take manure from outside the fence or in the shed or paddock when the sheep are out. Use a rake and shovel and please try not to disturb the grass too much. Any time you interact with sheep or their droppings, be sure to wash your hands and boots.

Can I picnic on the commons without sharing my meal with the sheep?

Of course. The area around the oak trees with benches will be mowed and the sheep will never graze there. And seriously, do not feed the sheep as it can make them sick.

Why are the sheep out in the winter? Isn’t it too cold for them?

No. They have 6–8 inches of woolly warmth. You’ll see snow on top of them because they’re so well insulated that their body heat won’t reach the exterior of their coat. They’ll have a building to go into if they want, but if they’re outside in the snow or rain, that’s their choice.

I want to have an event on the commons, won’t the sheep be in the way?

Nope. Let us know ahead of time, just like you let the Town of Porter know that you’ll be using the space, and we’ll be sure to have them confined to the forest or the paddock if need be. Call (608-886-9584) or email (scott@lowtechinstitute.org) and we’ll be sure to have the spots you need grazed down low and clear of droppings when you need it. Also, if you’re having a wedding and want some photo ops with the girls, that can probably be arranged — again, let us know.

Can I pet/feed/chase/interact with the sheep?

Only if you’re working with the co-op, but we take volunteers and are happy to show you the right way to interact with our ladies. The sheep won’t get too near the fence, but don’t be tempted to jump over because it is electrified and will give you a bit of an annoying but harmless shock (as the signs on the fence say). Please don’t feed them branches, leaves, or grass clippings: they have plenty to eat and some plants will make them sick. Ask us and we’re happy to give you some treats to feed them. Don’t chase the sheep, bro. Mind your children. Please do take pictures and share them on social media: #CooksvilleSheep. Maybe we’ll start an instagram for them. Any time you interact with sheep or their droppings, be sure to wash your hands and boots.

Aren’t rams dangerous? My third-cousin-once-removed two towns over broke his leg when a ram butted him.

Then your cousin wasn’t where he was supposed to be or he was but wasn’t paying attention. We’ll have a ram for mating purposes a few weeks out of the year. As long as you’re outside the fence, you’ll be fine. Never trust a ram or turn your back on him if you’re in the pen, which you won’t be. Also, ewes with lambs can be protective, so leave the little ones alone unless you’re accompanied by a co-op member.

A sheep has escaped! What should I do?

This may never happen, but if a sheep gets out (or the whole flock), they’ll probably be milling about looking for something to eat. Please call Scott immediately: 608-886-9584. If he isn’t available, call NEED A VOLUNTEER HERE. If the sheep are on State Road 59, the main thing is to alert oncoming traffic. That’s safer than trying to shoo the sheep back on the commons. But if you absolutely want to, you can try to do so at your own risk if others can help hold back traffic — we’d rather have annoyed drivers than lose a sheep and we’d rather lose a sheep than a person. Again, this is very unlikely to happen.


References

Cornell Cooperative Extension – Experts Suggest Grazing Sheep, Cows, Ducks in Forest
Purdue – Weed Control and Fire Hazard Reduction in Forest Ecosystems with Sheep Grazing
Association for Temperate Agroforestry – Silvopasture Systems Demonstrated by AgroForest Wisconsin
Charlotte Clifford-Rathert – Using Small Ruminants in Silvopasture Development
University of California Small Farm Program – Sheep: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative


3 thoughts on “Proposal for Community Sheep Flock Co-op to Maintain Village Commons and Oak Grove

  1. I think its a great idea! Might fly a little better amongst the nay sayers if you left the community center area across the gravel drive out to the road and to the outhouses non grazing areas. this way people still have a park and place to park and picnic and throw a frisbee.

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    1. Hi Eric,
      Thanks for the comment and absolutely. This plan is all up for debate and if people want, say, a baseball diamond brought back or specific areas always kept sheep free and want our taxes to continue to pay to mow them, that’s no problem. The herd size can be adjusted to fit anything from one acre on up. I think you’d be able to throw a frisbee across previously grazed areas, too. The maximum grass height would be 10′ but most of it would be kept between 3″ and 6″. Right now it fluctuates between 3″ and 5″ depending on when it was last mowed. If you’re throwing around a frisbee, I’d join you…

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      1. Also, if we wanted to keep the parking lot grazed, we could confine them to the parking area for a single day, get it grazed heavily, and then put them on another patch the next day, so the parking area would be a priority to keep open. Lots of options.

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