Tag Archive for: grazing

In this project, researchers placed sheep on a college campus in an effort to examine the social benefits of grazing lawnscape management. The project sought to determine if the presence of the sheep decreased stress levels among the student body; if sheep grazing events created opportunities for education about well-being and engagement with the community; and if the sheep grazing contributed to the identity of the college campus. The researchers found that the presence of the sheep provided temporary, in-the-moment stress relief for students, and the events fostered a sense of community and placemaking. Sheep grazing did not appear to have an impact on the overall campus identity.

Written By: Alex Delworth, Clean Energy Policy Associate; Center for Rural Affairs

Just off the campus of Maharishi University in Fairfield Iowa, sits a 1.1-megawatt (MW) solar farm. Beneath the panels, a flock of sheep and their newborn lambs are grazing, while beginning rancher Emily Mauntel and her Australian Shepherd Ziggy stand back and admire their work.

Solar farms pose a considerable opportunity for multipurpose agricultural uses in rural spaces. Iowa has seen a rapid increase in solar project development the past two years. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry is expected to add another 1,304 MW—a 250% increase over current installed capacity—during the next five years. Depending on the type of technology installed, this could mean between 6,520 and 13,040 acres of land will be used for solar production. With proper local siting, these projects will be required to plant and maintain native vegetation underneath the panels. This increase in open pasture presents a unique opportunity to combine traditional land uses with renewable energy development, such as pollinator habitats or open grazing for livestock. An opportunity Emily has already begun benefiting from.

Originally from Michigan, Emily relocated to Fairfield to attend Maharishi International University. While completing a three-month internship at a goat farm in Oregon as part of the university’s Regenerative Organic Agriculture certificate program, her interest in livestock grew. After the internship, she remained in Oregon for another year, working for various livestock operations and gaining experience in the industry. In late 2021, she moved back to Fairfield to work on the university’s vegetable farm and help her peers in their respective livestock businesses.

Emily Mauntel holding a solar-grazing lamb. Photo: Emily Mauntel

One day she and a friend were driving past a large solar array in Minnesota and noticed how the infrastructure was perfect for sheep grazing. They knew about the array in Fairfield, which is owned by the university and operated by Ideal Energy, a local solar company. She contacted the solar company to pitch the idea first and gained their approval before approaching the university. Both parties were ecstatic because the university had been looking for somebody to graze livestock and Ideal Energy saw an opportunity to avoid spending about $5,000 for annual landscaping, according to the company. Emily said the two parties came to an agreement that she would graze the array, which provided her an opportunity to access pasture in exchange for landscaping the solar farm. With this agreement, Emily benefited by not having lease payments for the time her sheep were on the farm, saving her approximately $360 per month according to Iowa State University’s land lease estimates, or about $2,520 for 2022.

Sheep grazing under solar array. Photo: Emily Mauntel

Once Emily had approval, she and her friend went into business together and purchased a 30-head herd of sheep from an auction in Texas. In May 2022, 29 ewes and one ram were dropped off on the six-acre, 1.1-MW solar farm. Before purchasing the herd, she surveyed the land and determined that, given the amount of growth on the site, she would be able to graze five sheep per acre. That is two more than usual because of how lush the plant life was on the property. The site was planted with a mix of flowering prairie species, including clover, fescue, broad-leaf plantain, and others, which served as a good food source. The sheep were allowed to roam freely throughout the solar array, something Emily said worked well. Overall, she believes rotational grazing would have been more efficient but would have required a larger investment due to the cost of a moveable fence.

Emily with her herd. Photo: Emily Mauntel

What makes this story especially interesting is that the agribusiness model directly addresses two major issues beginning farmers face—access to land and infrastructure. A 2017 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that land access was the number one issue their respondents faced. Young farmers, according to the survey, are also the most inclined to rent, which makes finding land with the right infrastructure more difficult.

The Fairfield solar site’s infrastructure made the land even more attractive to Emily. She said it had sufficient fencing to hold her sheep and keep out predators. Due to the required native vegetation management, it also had plenty of food for the sheep, which means she never had to supplement food for them, except a mineral feed mix for nutrition. A water source to fill up the livestock troughs and an access road straight up to the gate also proved beneficial. Considering all of these factors, Emily was able to cut a lot of costs throughout the process.

Newly energized by the experience she has gained through solar grazers and managing her own livestock, Emily is now looking to return to the West to continue ranching. She and her business partner plan to sell their herd. Emily hopes to see the solar grazing model continue on the site, saying it has been a perfect opportunity for her to gain experience in the industry, and she believes it will be a great opportunity for the next person, as well.

The main goal of this research was to find optimal management strategies for sheep flocks kept on solar arrays. Researchers studied flock health and productivity parameters, as well as forage production and quality in a multi-year colloborative trial on a 54-acre solar array adjacent to Cornell University campus. The study concluded that stocking densities of 12, 16, and 20 sheep per acre were successful in maintaining the vegetation within solar arrays, while grazing densities between 12 and 16 sheep per acre may be more complementary for flock health and condition.

By Dr. Seeta Sistla, Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences DepartmentCal Poly, San Luis Obispo

With the dual growth of utility-scale solar energy and food production, fallowed agricultural landscapes represent a particularly promising area for the deployment of solar arrays because these systems have the potential to recover with shifts in management practices (Tscharntke et al., 2012;  Wright et al., 2012). California is a national leader of both solar energy development and agricultural production. As water becomes scarcer and costlier, there is growing tension between land-use choices centered around maintaining conventional agricultural systems, transitioning land to renewable energy farming through solar energy development, shifting agricultural strategy (e.g., conventional to conservation farming), or alternate land uses (e.g., housing development).

Placing solar arrays on farmland and other human-modified landscapes represents a promising area to unite energy production with ecological restoration and the sustained conservation of ecologically valuable land. The potential for ecologically improving degraded landscapes with targeted solar array placement will be governed by biogeochemical interactions between abiotic and biotic factors (Figure 1).  Despite the potential ecological and economic synergistic benefits that coupling these land uses could create, the impacts of solar arrays on fallowed farmland and other disturbed landscapes are not well understood.

Figure 1. Microclimatic effects of USSE array on fallowed agricultural landscapes.

To address this deficit, we are studying the direct and indirect effects of utility-scale solar energy in conjunction with sheep grazing on soil and plant characteristics. This work includes collaborating with agricultural stakeholders, undergraduate and graduate students, and solar developers (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sampling plant and soil conditions at a solar farm on the California Central Coast.

To date, we have found that land in the direct footprint of the array panels hosts a plant community with increased nutrient content and forage quality and maintains a greener plant community for longer periods than the surround area.  These findings likely reflect reduced water stress due to shading in our arid western landscapes, highlighting the potential synergy between carbon-free energy production, rangeland management, and water conservation (Figure 3). Our group continues to investigate these plant and soil responses to array placement at two solar sites on the Central Coast of California and looks forward to opportunities to collaborate with others.

Figure 3. Sheep grazing within one of our solar array study sites. Note the shift in vegetation greenness beyond the array area.

References

Tscharntke, T., Y. Clough, T. C. Wanger, L. Jackson, I. Motzke, I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, and A. Whitbread. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation 151:53–59.

Wright, H. L., I. R. Lake, and P. M. Dolman. 2012. Agriculture-a key element for conservation in the developing world. Conservation Letters 5:11–19.

In this webinar from the Indiana Conservation Cropping System Initiative, AgriSolar Clearinghouse partner Greg Barron-Gafford provides an agrivoltaics primer and a discussion of potential for agrivoltaics in climate-smart crop practices. Byron Kominek then describes his successful agrivoltaic farm, Jack’s Solar Garden. Byron describes ongoing studies, farm economics, community development, and education programs at the farm. Stacie Peterson closes the webinar with a description of the agrivoltaic resources available in the AgriSolar Clearinghouse.

The Montgomery Sheep Farm in North Carolina might be taking mixed use to another level. Not only is it a working sheep farm, it also offers a bed and breakfast for two-legged guests, breeds dogs, and is now using solar to power the entire operation. A WFAE reporter recently visited the farm and reports the farm’s 20-megawatt solar array has not only provided it with additional income related to clean energy, but keeps workers employed and has reduced costs.

One important solar benefit  is a reduction in maintenance costs. The grass under the solar panels no longer needs to be cut, thanks to the sheep who graze under the solar panels on a rotating schedule. This not only reduces costs, but also allows the farm to raise more lambs per acre.

We can have many more lambs per acre than if you put them on a normal pasture because of the solar panels,”  Joel Olsen told WFAE, owner of the Montgomery Sheep Farm.

Olsen says another big benefit is the  shade provided by the solar panels. The shade not only provides cool areas for the sheep during hot summer days, but it helps the grass grow thicker which means more food for  the sheep. This thick grass is much more suitable for the sheep than grass typically grown in an open field, according to Olsen.

The farm currently operates on 200 acres, raising sheep, chickens, and horses. Roughly 400 sheep are rotated on a weekly basis under the solar panels in 30 designated grazing areas.

If you can provide farmers additional income related to clean energy, additional income related to grounds maintenance, you know, it allows our rural areas to remain beautiful and have the people living there to remain employed,” Olsen said.

To learn more about the Montgomery Sheep Farm in North Carolina, listen to WFAE’s story,  here.