Grazing the weeds away
March/April 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Paolo Vescia and Ching Lee
Sheep and goats provide nature's answer to brush removal
Bianca and Andrée Soares of Star Creek Land Stewards lead a herd of their sheep and goats to a new grazing site. The mother-and-daughter team operates a contracted grazing business using their livestock as natural weed eaters.
It's hard not to do a double-take at the sight of 400 sheep and goats moving through the streets of Half Moon Bay on their way to their next big meal.
This was no casual dining excursion. The hungry animals were dispatched to clear overgrown weeds and brush in a region revered for its natural and scenic beauty. From now until the end of summer, the flock will graze where needed—around the perimeters of a parking lot in downtown San Francisco, on the hillsides of Oakland or private properties too mountainous to mow with machinery.
The traveling weed whackers belong to Merced County rancher Andrée Soares, who runs Star Creek Land Stewards, a commercial sheep and goat business that specializes in contracted grazing.
"We've been called to graze in some pretty interesting places," she said.
Public agencies, municipalities and other private landowners increasingly turn to ranchers such as Soares to graze their properties because they see the benefits of using livestock to manage vegetation, especially as a way to prevent wildfires.
Scott Boynton, maintenance supervisor for the city of Lincoln, which uses Star Creek's grazing services, said sheep and goats not only eat invasive plant species such as starthistle that the city wants to control in its preserves and open-space areas, but the ruminants also prevent the accumulation of thatch, dead-plant matter that increases fire risk and causes invasive plants to thrive.
"The sheep and goats eat the thatch," he said. "They also trample it down into the soil, which helps to naturally fertilize the soil so that it flourishes every year."
Depending on the topography and the type of vegetation on a grazing project, Star Creek will deploy only sheep, only goats or a mixed herd. As grazers, sheep eat grasses and lower bushes, while goats, which are browsers, are good at taking down taller shrubs and trees, explained Bianca Soares, Star Creek project manager and Andrée Soares' daughter. Goats also can tolerate plants that are poisonous to other animals.
"Goats will go through poison oak like nothing," Andrée Soares said. "One of my favorite things to show is the before-and-afters of poison oak, because they just clear it out so well and people are able to use land that they haven't been able to use before."
Goats eat many different plants, including poison oak, top right, which is toxic to other animals, and starthistle, bottom right, even in its spiny stage, which other grazing animals avoid.
A natural solution
Catastrophic wildfires that have ravaged the state in recent years also have reinvigorated people's interest in vegetation management for fuel reduction, said Ken Tate, a University of California, Davis, professor and rangeland watershed specialist. As these fires destroy homes and threaten entire communities, the idea of using livestock as a tool to manage vegetation becomes more widespread, he added.
"That goes along with people being interested in local food and wanting local agriculture," Tate said. "It definitely connects our rural and urban communties together. It connects local agriculture. It humanizes it for people in a community that are not in agriculture."
Coastside Land Trust, which holds a conservation easement on a piece of coastal property owned by the city of Half Moon Bay, has been using sheep and goats for the last five years in its habitat restoration efforts. Executive Director Jo Chamberlain said the city used to mow the 3-acre parcel with equipment that kicked weed seeds, dirt and dust everywhere.
"I think (the city is) much happier with this type of management," she said. "We're delighted with (Star Creek) because now we're getting some native shrubs, native wildflowers and native grasses to come back."
In residential settings such as Half Moon Bay, Star Creek Land Stewards' working sheep and goats often attract plenty of onlookers, turning the annual vegetation-management project into a community event.
The novelty of working sheep and goats in Half Moon Bay's residential setting usually draws a crowd of spectators and local media, with the land trust inviting the public to what has become an annual community event. Bianca Soares said the public attention allows her to explain to onlookers why the animals are there and what they can do for the land.
"People are very interested," Andrée Soares said. "They have lots and lots of questions. And they love to see the animals moving. Whenever we're walking animals from one spot to another, people love that. They love to see the dogs working."
Experienced herders from Peru stay with the animals 24/7, year-round. Trained border collies assist with herding and moving. Great Pyrenees and Akbash guard dogs also live with the herds to protect them from predators. At the end of their nomadic grazing season, usually in September, the sheep and goats return to their home ranch in Los Banos, where they have their offspring.
For most projects, Star Creek uses goats that are a Spanish-Boer mix and dorper sheep, a South African breed that sheds its coat during the summer. Andrée Soares said dorpers are more versatile and hardy and can handle tough terrain well. Because dorpers don't produce wool and lanolin, they're also better at not dispersing weed seeds that tend to get trapped on wool sheep.
"That's advantageous if you're trying to control vegetation and not spread noxious weeds," she said.
Herder Martin Soriano hangs with border collies Bobby and Malu, both used for herding.
Saving the ranch
Though the mother-and-daughter team comes from a long family history of sheep ranching—Bianca Soares being the fourth generation—continuing that tradition was not always in the cards for the two women. They noted the economic volatility of the sheep business and the steady decline of U.S. sheep operations.
Having grown up around sheep, Bianca Soares said she has always loved the animals and loved hanging out with her grandfather—who still owns a commercial sheep operation—whether he was herding, shearing or moving the animals.
A young lamb stands next to a goat and sheep as a guard dog watches over the herd.
"But I never saw much of a future in it," said the young woman, who's currently studying managerial economics with a focus in agriculture at UC Davis.
That all changed in 2014, when Andrée Soares saw an opportunity to get into the contracted grazing business. Like her daughter, she said she also had a love for the animals but did not see any viable opportunities for her in the business. Until last year, she worked as a full-time neonatal nurse for 28 years.
It was her father's foreman, Emilio Huarte, who first saw the potential of contracted grazing as a new type of business for ranchers, she said, and encouraged her to look into it. Huarte now works as Star Creek's operations manager.
"It's a whole different twist on running a livestock business, where I'm now being paid to feed my animals at least 50 percent of the year as opposed to buying feed for 100 percent of the year," she said. "I am able to be paid for feeding my animals while they're breeding and multiplying."
As business took off, Andrée Soares decided to quit her nursing job last spring to focus on ranching. Though her daughter has expressed interest in working outside the family business for a few years when she graduates college, she said she takes comfort knowing she can come back to ranching and maybe someday take over the business for her mom.
"I'll definitely be involved with sheep and agriculture, no matter what," Bianca Soares said. "But now, I actually see possibilities—and a future."
Before there were lawn mowers, sheep and goats had long been used to keep undesirable plants in check. Here's a look at what makes them nature's weed eaters:
Because of their agility, goats can stand on their hind legs and climb to access tree branches, shrubs and other plants in hard-to-reach places.
The dorper sheep, in foreground, is raised primarily for meat. Because they don't produce wool and shed their coat naturally during the summer, they're better at not spreading weed seeds that tend to get trapped on sheep raised for wool.
- Sheep and goats are herbivores, feasting on grass, hay, leaves and other plant material. Sheep are considered grazers, feeding on grass, clover and other broad-leaf flowering plants lower to the ground. Goats prefer to browse from the top down, eating seed heads and the tips of woody shrubs, trees and leafy plants.
- As ruminants, sheep and goats have four-part stomachs containing digestive enzymes that help break down food. The hoofed mammals digest food by first eating the plant material, regurgitating a semi-digested form known as cud, and then chewing and swallowing the cud. Other ruminants include cattle, bison, buffalo, moose, deer, elk and giraffes.
- Sheep have a split in their upper lip that allows them to pick the preferred leaves off a plant.
- Goats are agile and can climb, crawl, stand on their back legs and, in some cases, jump higher than 5 feet. This allows them to access tree branches, shrubs and other vegetation in hard-to-reach places.
- Sheep and goats can consume anywhere from 2 to 6 percent of their body weight in food each day. Depending on the breed and size of the animal, that could be anywhere from half a pound to 22 pounds.
- Depending on the type of vegetation and density, a herd of 400 sheep and goats can graze through 1 to 2 acres per day.