The amazing environmental benefits of sheep grazing for lawn care

The amazing environmental benefits of sheep grazing for lawn care

Sisyphus pushed a rock forever. I had to mow my friend's lawn.

Every summer, before heading to the beach, we make sure the grass is cut. We were pushing the lawnmower under the hot Florida sun. The rough carpet of St. Augustine grass seems to grow faster than we can mow it.

If only I had known about the amazing grazing solutions that were pioneered thousands of years ago. The phrase “lawnmowers” was once synonymous with hoofed livestock—goats, sheep, horses, and other herbivores—that fed on grasses, seedlings, and what are now called weeds. Through constant mowing and fertilizing, they created open pastures and meadows.

A variety of storied lawns have relied on grazing to maintain appearance. Beginning in 1863, sheep became a common sight in New York's Central Park—and “sheep meadow” was not a metaphor. Herds of hams can be found munching in public parks in London, Boston and Chicago. In 1914, more than 100 sheep were invited to the nation's capital to graze near the Lincoln Memorial, and later near the White House grounds. Then they immediately disappeared as the machines took over.

After a long hiatus, the animals have returned. Europe, devastated by forest fires, is now paying the price for herds of cattle and sheep in order to reduce vegetation and reduce the risk of forest fires, leading to the revival of the forest grazing method that prevailed in the past. Sheep appear in solar farms, vineyards, cemeteries, golf courses and even on green roofs. The state of California recruits goats as firefighters across the state, while UC Davis relies on sheep to keep the campus healthy.

The suburbs are the next frontier. Lamb Mowers, billed as the country's only sheep-led lawn care service, is on the road to success. The small Northern Virginia company employs more than a dozen sheep to mow, weed and fertilize suburban lawns throughout the region. These humble animals are changing hearts and minds, and perhaps pointing Americans toward a different relationship with their grasses.

If grass were a crop, it would be the largest in the United States. Turfgrass covers an estimated 1.9 percent of the area of ​​the continental United States, according to 2005 NASA. Satellite image analysis, including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, and similar landscapes. Together these would represent the largest irrigated crop in the United States, three times larger than corn.

This comes at a high cost – Not least the wildlife displaced by his idiot. The average homeowner spends about 70 hours a year on lawn and garden care, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. American Time Use Survey. Maintenance costs run into the hundreds of dollars a year, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Service estimates.

But Corey Sutter, the self-described “master shepherd” of lamb shearers, has discovered another method on his permaculture farm in Northern Virginia. Since 2016, instead of hauling heavy equipment, Sutter has released his herd of Southdown Baby Doll sheep to graze on troublesome plants like poison ivy and multiflora rose. It worked. He realized that there was likely a market in the surrounding suburbs.

So he bought a trailer, loaded about 15 sheep, and opened for business. Soon people began booking regular, two-hour, $195 visits to “weed and feed”: the sheep clipped the tops of the grass and chewed up weeds, while the sheep left pellets that dissolved in rich fertilizer in the rain or first watering. For larger jobs, Lamb Mowers has offered a 24-hour “sheep herding” service for $250, a price he says is competitive with similar fossil fuel-powered services.

Sheep are experts in lawn care. they They are more gentle grazers than goats or horses, trimming the tops of grass and nipping weeds that homeowners want to remove. They leave about four inches of blade: just the right height, says Michigan State University Extension, to maximize root growth and shade weeds. Any lower, as some lawn companies mow, the grass will grow faster to reach the sun, necessitating more mowing.

“Sheep love the sweet tips of grass, and diets that are as biodiverse as the weeds you have in your garden,” says Sutter, who grew up farming on a Mennonite homestead in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, including watercress, chickweed and onion grass. “This is the perfect buffet for our sheep.”

Sutter or one of his employees accompanies the animals to uproot hard-to-reach infestations and finishes the job with electric-powered clippers for a more trimmed look. Sheep do not sway and do not make a perfect settlement across wide areas.

“We provide an imperfect mowing service,” Sutter admits, but he says it improves the health and biodiversity of the yard.

It also brings other benefits. There is no need for chemicals. Sheep selectively eat grasses and invasive weeds (sheep mowers will not be used Any lawns treated in the past six months). Carbon from the grass is returned to the soil in the form of sheep pellets. One 2006 study found that replacing sheep with mowers reduced net emissions by more than a third (980 kg CO2e/ha/year). If you embrace the natural grass and “no-mow” movement, sheep help you transition from grass to prairie, keeping them healthy over time.

But the biggest benefit may be the joy it brings to employers.

Sheep shearers graze on suburban plants and interact with families in Fairfax, Virginia (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Every spring, Haven Kehrs, assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Davis, guides 25 sheep to graze the university grounds. Between April and June, the animals were inadvertently enrolled in a study documenting how the herd impacts everything from soil and biodiversity to students' mental health as part of the university's Nature Rx program, which explores how connection to nature improves human health.

She says a study on sheep shearing capabilities has evolved into a welfare study. “Students ride their bikes and sit with the sheep, or after exams, (Sheep) “Soothes them and makes them happy.” This led her to explore how these interactions could once again become part of people's lives, rather than a novelty separate from modern life.

Kears, who hopes to turn the Davis herd into a mobile service, says the benefits go beyond sustainability. “You want to do it not because you have to do it,” she says. “You do it because it's cool.”

That's why Beverly and Juan Rivera of Springfield, Virginia, rent Lamb Mowers to their leafy suburb every spring and fall. Every year, they invite their neighbors to watch and play while the sheep weed and trim the grass. “It's fun, gentle and therapeutic,” Beverly says. “When you have a lot going on in your life, and you have a garden full of sheep, it's a beautiful thing.”

Lamb Mowers sheep, an alternative to climate-friendly landscaping, have their necks scratched while snacking on bushes at a suburban Virginia home. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The couple still mows the lawn between visits — Beverly says sheep aren't always the most disciplined manicurists — but they're not looking for a perfect driveway. Since the sheep have arrived, there is no need to apply chemicals or fertilizers to the grass and children can have fun with them.

If you want to rent lamb mowers, or equipment like them, suburban grazers are in short supply in the United States. Sutter says he believes he is one of the few, if not the only one, who provides services to individual homes. Its services currently extend to the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas only. During the spring and fall, his sheep services often sell out for weeks. But Sutter might give the idea to other small ranchers near cities who need extra income, potentially taking it to new areas of the country.

Sutter says what he's doing is nothing new. “We're trying to practice regenerative agriculture in the suburbs. Instead of fighting with the natural system, we're working with it,” he says. “That's how everyone used to take care of their garden: horses and sheep. “We are bringing back a very old technology.”

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