Babydolls in Vineyards

By Bronwyn Healy

Bellarine Babydolls and Vineyard Sheep


Photos Courtesy of  Shane Foster, Redwaters Babydoll Stud, Bronwyn Healy, Bellarine Babydolls and Vineyard Sheep and Jamie Conway, Belmont Vineyard.

This article is written to help inform people who are thinking of buying Babydoll sheep for vineyards. It will also help sheep breeders be informed, to assist in selling Babydoll sheep into this market. For sellers it is important to remember that the primary business of vineyard operators is to produce wine and they won’t necessarily know the questions to ask up front.


WHY DO VINEYARD OPERATORS USE SHEEP IN VINEYARDS?

Sheep are used in vineyards in winter to control weed growth under the vines and between the rows. They provide a free environmentally friendly fertiliser and they are used to help marketing some vineyards. They are typically kept in vineyards from harvest to bud burst, although some vineyards keep them in for longer. In cooler regions sheep may be used for leaf plucking between fruit set and veraison. Sheep reduce the need for tractor use, mowing, spraying herbicides, applying fertiliser and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


SOME THINGS FOR OPERATORS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING SHEEP FOR VINEYARDS

Fences: You need good external fencing and some internal fencing. Sheep are most effective in weed control in vineyards when confined to smaller spaces and then moved on to new areas. You should consider temporary or electric fencing. This is because sheep are selective feeders and they eat the bits they like first and then they eat the rest if they are hungry. If you plan to use temporary electric fencing with sheep get some good advice from your stockist, as it needs to be properly set up.

Stocking rates: Vineyards can take a large number of sheep for short periods over winter, and potentially longer periods depending on the way the vineyard is set up. The aim is to clear the weed burden before vines start to grow again in Spring and this will determine the stocking rate. A vineyard can take a large number of sheep over the whole vineyard or a smaller number of over a section of the vineyard. Consideration needs to be given to where the sheep will graze from bud burst to leaf fall. Are there other paddocks that need lawn mowing during this period? Is there enough feed available during the dry periods? For example, if you have a long hot summer it is not unusual to need to buy in feed late in summer and through early autumn. To manage this, some vineyards have their own large flocks and rotate the sheep through their paddocks, others have small flocks and use them in certain areas and others might have a small flock and agist sheep from neighbours over the winter period.


The stage of the vineyard: Sheep are easier to manage in established vineyards where they are unlikely to damage the vines. In new vineyards or in vineyards where the vines are being regenerated, care needs to be taken to protect new growth, consider vine guards or excluding sheep from new vine/new growth areas.


Infrastructure: If you decide to buy sheep you will have to decide what to put in place for normal animal husbandry, drenching, hooves, shearing and lambing. Over time you may choose to invest in a race, temporary fencing and some sheds. Some vineyards have an arrangement with a neighbour to assist with these tasks. One good thing about vineyards is that there is usually plenty of natural shelter. Sheep breeders could provide advice on infrastructure needs and services which may be required by prospective buyers.


Watering tubes: Sheep will push under and jump over watering tubes and while vineyard operators report that the tubes might be bumped by the sheep and need to be reconnected, they are not usually damaged.


Agrochemicals: Particular attention needs to be given to what has been sprayed on the vineyard, complying with recommendations for withholding periods for sheep grazing and human consumption. Spraying does not usually occur when sheep are in the vineyard as they are usually there when the vines are dormant. If spraying is to occur, the sheep need to be removed as indicated.


The type of sheep: The lament of so many vineyard operators is that they were sold ‘Babydoll’ sheep and they were so cute when they were little, but they grew too big to work in the vineyard. Larger sheep can damage water lines and have a shorter period in which they can be left in the vineyard. The Babydoll Sheep Association Breed Standard will help vineyard operators to know what to look for when they are buying sheep for the vineyard. Vineyard operators are likely to be looking for Babydoll sheep that are on the shorter side of the Breed Standard and with short necks.


WHAT VINEYARD OPERATORS SAY ABOUT HAVING SHEEP IN VINEYARDS

Sheep are commonly used in vineyards, although Babydolls sheep are still quite rare and pure bred Babydolls are even rarer. Vineyard operators that use sheep in vineyards are quite consistent in their feedback. One operator who has been using sheep in vineyards for over ten years summed it up like this – “It’s really a no brainer, you save money on fuel, there is less soil compaction from heavy machinery, you get free fertiliser, you don’t have to use as much herbicide and so you reduce herbicide resistance and it’s better for the environment.”

Babydoll sheep have a lot of appeal apart from just in the vineyard. They are good grass mowers and for weed control over the whole property but also easy to look after and so much fun to keep.