Sheep pastures expanded into orchards, woodlots

Norfolk County producers were winners of sheep pasture award

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Adding hay and sheep to the output from land that continues as an apple orchard certainly seems like an idea with merit. Add to that the pasturing of sheep and even geese in once-neglected woodlots, and grazing on corn stalks into the early winter, and it’s not surprising the innovations of Norfolk County’s Schuyler Farms have garnered interest among pasture enthusiasts.

Back in November, Carrie Woolley and Brett Schuyler won the 2019 Ontario Sheep Pasture Award presented by Ontario Sheep Farmers, the Ontario Forage Council and Mapleseed. In March, Woolley was a featured speaker at the annual Profitable Pastures conference, hosted by the Forage Council in Mount Forest.

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Why it matters: Having two or even three income streams from one piece of land can, if properly managed, add to a farm’s profitability.

The apple and sour cherry business, as well as a sizeable corn/soybeans/wheat cash crop operation, is on the Schuyler side (Brett’s brother, father and uncle are also involved). Brett and Carrie met at the University of Guelph; Woolley, raised on a dairy farm, learned about pasturing sheep in an orchard from a farm in Australia. “To be honest, at first I thought it was a crazy idea.”

But they decided to explore it, and there has certainly been some trial and error. Asked by a Profitable Pastures attendee about the chewing of bark, Woolley said she has stopped putting animals in any orchard that’s less than three years established. Even in mature apple trees, she did have a problem one year with adult sheep chewing the bark. So now only lambs are allowed to pasture in apple orchards.

And when there’s fruit on the trees, there’s no grazing.

The sour cherries orchard has proved more ideal. The trees are pruned quite high for the mechanical harvester (the apples are hand-picked by crews mainly from Trinidad and Tobago), so there’s no concern about limb damage from the sheep. The cherries are typically harvested in July, allowing Woolley to bring in the flock at around the lambs’ weaning time.

Carrie Woolley farms with sheep using available pasture and some woodlots in Norfolk County.
photo: woolleyslamb.ca

Meanwhile in the apple orchards, limitations on pasturing possibilities haven’t meant giving up on innovation. “We started looking at them as a hay field,” Woolley said.

Previous to this, they were constantly mowing the orchards. “Now, it’s a complete reverse in how we think about it.” They now plant a mix including some alfalfa, and let the forage come to flower before harvesting – thereby attracting pollinators.

“It’s pretty hard to dry grasses in a mature orchard when there’s so much shade,” she admitted, so everything is baled and wrapped. And they have had to make modifications to some of their equipment to allow it to fit between the trees. But overall, Woolley said, making hay between the apples has been a success.

So too have been efforts to rehabilitate some poorly-producing portions of rented cash crop farms.

One farm had “kind of a monoculture of goldenrod” in a lowland area where a farmer had tried to crop and subsequently abandoned the effort. Bringing in the sheep on a managed rotational grazing basis, she said, had a significant effect. Now in that field, there is a huge diversity of pasture species.

The couple also has also incorporated “silvopasture” into their grazing regime, using parts of woodlots on various rented farms. “I called them degraded farm woodlots,” Woolley said, due to “harvest of the best trees and the junk was left behind.”

Success, she says, comes from not just putting the sheep in to graze, but rather intentionally managing the process through rotational access. This enhances the quality of the pasture, Woolley believes, and promotes the growth of high-quality trees.

Before they brought in the sheep (and, last year, geese to follow the sheep), walking through these areas was nearly impossible due to the dense undergrowth of invasive species. Now, there are pasture species growing in those areas.

To start the process, they had to thin out some of the trees and thorn bushes. They ran a forestry mulcher through the underbrush. They also did some aerial seeding of forage species, and put up some electric fencing – which Woolley monitors faithfully to ensure it’s working well.

Asked about predator control, Woolley heaped praise upon her kennel of 17 guard dogs. Rotational grazing through a series of smaller paddocks, she noted, means each dog has much less territory to cover compared to simply letting the flock into the same large fenced-off area, day after day.

In the long term, she hopes improving the woodlots will create an income stream through selective logging. But as they pursue that path, through silvopasturing, “our goal is to have some forage production along with the trees.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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