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Finding Opportunity in the Sheep Industry

by Camren Maierle, PhD



Sheep producers across the country should be aware of the need for growth within our industry. Imported lamb contributes more than 50% to our domestic lamb consumption in the US. Unfortunately, there are very few short-term solutions to recapture this market share. One thing is evident when examining the consumer data, if the US sheep industry wants to provide American lamb to our consumers, the US sheep industry must grow.


Growth of the sheep industry can, and needs to occur in two primary areas:

1.     Improved production efficiencies of our current inventory.

2.     Increased number of ewes producing lambs (adding to our current inventory)


Improving efficiencies of our current inventory is something producers should be striving for on a daily basis. Improvements in lambing percentage, efficiency of gain in growing lambs, and seasonality of the production system are a few of the areas that would significantly impact our product availability. For the purposes of this article, we will take a deeper look at increasing the number of ewes producing lambs.


When we think about adding to the current sheep inventory one of the primary areas of growth is within our new and beginning producers demographic. With the median age of agricultural producers increasing (USDA Ag Census, 2022), the need to find outlets for younger generations to be successful is more important now than ever before. One of the greatest challenges for agricultural growth (specifically within the sheep industry), is access to land. Whether the cost of ownership to purchase land, or competition with cash rent value of tillable acres, the capital investment is greater than many can afford. Land values continue to increase across most of the United States, identifying opportunities that mitigate risk and are not cost prohibitive has immediate need.


 

Targeted grazing is not a new concept to the sheep industry in the US. However, it has gained the attention of many producers across the US that have not seen the opportunity in their region. Solar grazing has gained rapid popularity with both sheep producers and solar energy companies. The concept is relatively simple, vegetation exists within a solar array and needs to be managed. The need for vegetation management may be to reduce shade on solar panels, or reduce fire risk by removing forage through grazing management. Fortunately for producers, sheep fit the system, providing an opportunity to mesh energy production with agricultural expansion.


In a solar grazing system, shepherds move their sheep to solar farms to graze on the vegetation underneath the solar panels. The sheep help to keep the vegetation in check, preventing it from becoming overgrown and shading the solar panels. This allows the panels to operate more efficiently and maximizes energy production. Solar grazing with sheep offers several environmental and economic benefits. By allowing sheep to graze on the vegetation under solar panels, solar farms can reduce the need for mowing and herbicides, leading to possible cost savings and lower carbon emissions. Additionally, the presence of sheep can help to prevent the growth of invasive plant species, promoting biodiversity and creating a more sustainable ecosystem. This service provided by the grazer is a paid service and offers extensive benefits to both solar companies and sheep producers.


When looking at the financial benefits of solar grazing, the frequently asked question is how much my services worth are. Ultimately, as a service provider we look at competitive pricing compared to the alternative. How much is a solar company willing to pay for the mowing contract for vegetation management in your region? How many hurdles are there to the grazer managing sheep within the solar array? Some initial thoughts for the grazers consideration are: 

  • Water access within the site

  • Forage composition

  • Gate placement for moving sheep between arrays

  • Road access for flock mobilization

  • Overall suitability for the sheep.


To provide a written model for the economic opportunity, a 350$/acre service fee will be used for an annual payment for complete vegetation management of a solar array. Where do we get this estimate? Mowing estimates around 95$/pass with 55$/pass string trimming have been reported on utility scale sites in the Midwest region of the US. If a solar site requires 3 mowing events and 1 string trimming event with average rainfall in the Midwest region of the United States, the price for the mowing service is 340$/acre on an annual basis. These values are estimates and pricing is highly dependent by region and service agreement. On a100 acre solar array, an additional $35,000 is generated with the values used above for the grazing service. How many lambs would you need to sell to replace this amount of revenue?

 

The secondary benefit, and ultimately what generates the most excitement, is the opportunity solar grazing provides to expand sheep production with access to grazeable acres. Stocking rates vary greatly depending on region, forage speciation, and annual rainfall. Stocking rate estimates for solar grazing are comparable to what is reported for pasture in the region. Using the Midwest and Mid Atlantic regions as an example, estimates are in the 3-5 ewes/acre range, with some sites reporting the need for 7 ewes/acre to effectively manage vegetation. Using our previous 100 acre example, the solar site requires 4 ewes/acre and will allow for 400 ewes to be managed during the growing season, contributing to the growth of the sheep industry. The goal of outlining a crude example of what solar grazing offers producers is to generate future thought and excitement for the opportunity.


Though the concept of contract grazing is simple, the number of variables and considerations is extensive. Entering the realm of contract grazing adds additional layers to operating a sheep enterprise. This specific opportunity allows producers to be paid as a service provider to graze sheep and manage vegetation to the specifications set by the solar company. The additional income generated from this grazing service along with access to additional acreage is an opportunity the industry needs to capitalize on. Additionally, dual-use solar sites allow for agricultural acres to remain in agricultural production, generating food for a growing population.


If you have questions or interest in pursuing this opportunity, my suggestion is to turn to your industry resources:

  • American Lamb Board (ALB)

  • American Sheep Industry Association (ASI)

  • American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA)

  • University Extension Services


 

Camren Maierle, PhD, Sustainability Director, American Lamb Board



 

 

 

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