Organic Grounds Keepers

Vineyards, Lavender Fields, Orchards...

As a vineyard or orchard owner, I am sure you have thought of, perhaps even researched, ways to reduce costs. Well how about reducing costs, needing less people-power, becoming more organic, more environmentally-friendly, impressing visitors, potentially increasing profit? My simple answer to you is - miniature Babydoll sheep. 

A vineyard in California is having great success with their flock in the vineyard.  There is even a vineyard here in Ontario who employs a small flock of sheep in his vineyard, at Featherstone Estate Winery in the Niagara region.  These are his sheep pictured above, in his vineyard.  Some even suggest that having the Babydoll sheep may be a real treat compared to the grumpy groundskeeper who has been paid for years to maintain the orchards! With a suggested ratio of 5 Babydoll sheep per 1 acre of land, you would be looking at a bit of an initial investment, with fencing, shelter, and winter feed to factor in for start-up costs. Though after that, you will see your expenses drop, as you no longer pay for hired help, no longer need to cultivate between rows, and will see a reduction in equipment maintenance. You could see your production increase due to reduced mildew and disease problems on your vines, among other things. 

I truly believe this is the way for Ontario vineyards and orchards to go. In fact, I think it would be wonderful if all fruit growers, worldwide, became aware of the benefits of becoming more organic with Babydoll sheep on the land. Our air would be cleaner, our fruit plants healthier, and there would be a little bit less fuel on someone's hands! Read on through the article below, originally published in 1994, to realize that my little sheep could mean big opportunity for you. I feel so strongly this is the optimum choice for all vineyards and orchards, that I invested in a flock of over 30 Babydoll sheep, will have over 40 lambs annually (ready to work and eat, eat, and selectively eat) and I have never owned any type of livestock before in my life. I'll teach you, walk you thru, and invite you to come work with me for the day. If I can do it, I know you can too! 

In July 2010, I started my own vineyard. No, I am not talking about being the next competitor to any wine maker, though I planted 6 grape vines, so I could run my own "vineyard trials" here at our little farm. I will be running our lowest wire at approximately 36" from the ground. While I am not too concerned with training the grapes "just-so" to produce the best crop of grapes, the 2 grape trellis with 3 grape vines growing up each trellis will eventually provide some more shade out in the paddock. As well, I can relay to you, the grape-grower, things I have experienced first hand with the Babydoll sheep and grape vines. I feel much more comfortable speaking of things I know, than things I have read! Here are some things I learnt on Day One of planting the grape vines: 

  • sheep DO eat young, green (as in young and tender, not necessarily the colour) grape vines - it is not that they don't like the taste of grape vine so don't eat it - cause they do eat green vine
  • sheep DO NOT eat woody, established grape vine - I pulled some out of our bush, and though they deleafed the vine, they left the old, woody vine completely untouched
  • sheep will ONLY eat up as high as they can position their heads - that is why miniature Babydoll sheep are ideal for deleafing and maintaining the ground around the vine - 'cause they are short and don't stand on their back feet to "catch" food as goats do
  • your vineyard floor will need vegetation on it - I'm quite sure a hungry sheep of any size will resort to out-of-character measures if there is a lack of fresh green food to eat
  • once your grapes start to mature, before they turn from sour to sweet, that would be a great time to get the sheep into their "summer pasture" - my sheep eat grapes, not because that is unusual, but just because they are sheep 

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 fruit 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: 

  • No bark or vine damage
  • Leaves cleaned up to approximately 30”
  • Reduced mildew problems
  • Reduced disease problems caused by rotting fruit on the ground
  • Kept weeds/grass short, ate fallen leaves and fruit
  • Virtually eliminated the need for manual pruning on grapes
  • Eliminated the need for cultivating between rows 
  • Added organic fertilizer to the soil 

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." 



Kiger Family Vineyard in Sonoma, California, USA have been using Babydoll sheep as their vineyard groundskeepers since November 2006. It is their beauties shown in the photos on this page, (with the exception of the top picture) and were used with their permission. They have also had a very positive experience with their Babydolls. 

Please visit their website to read of their sheep-in-the-vineyard experience;