Can the Texas Sun Energize the Sheep Industry?
This edition of Reid’s Ram-blings was composed by Jake Thorne, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Program Specialist.
I just filled my pickup up with $4.00/gallon gas on my way in to work today and though it was a tough pill to swallow personally, my greatest concern is for how current energy prices are affecting America’s farmers and ranchers. The extra squeeze on agriculture to continue to “produce more with less” is another formidable obstacle for a sector of society that seems to already have a mountain range of hills to climb. With that said, my job title isn’t “chief lamenter”, and I don’t write this column to pour salt on your wounds either. Instead, I choose to find the silver lining in every obstacle, and as the trend to find alternatives to fossil fuels intensifies, I do see a major opportunity “shining” on the horizon for West Texas sheep producers.
I started this with a pessimistic grumble about fuel prices, but pragmatically I do not pretend to fully understand the dynamics by which oil and gas production, renewable energy, and ranching comingle in West Texas. It seems crude oil at $100/barrel brings salvation to one landowner and is a blow on the chin for another; but don’t worry that isn’t what I am intending to debate with this piece. With that said, the push for renewable energy has made it all the way to the heart of American fossil fuel production country. Solar farms are popping up everywhere in our region, including in true Texas fashion, a 2700-acre behemoth in McCamey (naturally, the largest in the USA). Behind their tightly enclosed fences and underneath the rows and rows of glimmering panels, grass and weeds still grow. I stand behind the fact that there is not a more well equipped, economically sensible, and carbon-recycling consumer of weeds than San Angelo’s unofficial mascot—sheep.
Grazing underneath solar panels is not something new. This niche style of production has been well reported for some time here and there, but for the most part, it is a new thing in our area. Loosely, how it works is solar companies are looking for ways to effectively control vegetation that grows underneath the panels (of course, rain is required for this, but I promised no negative thoughts earlier, so we’ll disregard the drought for now). Mowing, weed-eating, or chemical treatment are all options, but tend to be labor intensive and expensive. So, enter the four-legged mowers. Sheep producer and solar farm company can work out a mutually beneficial agreement in which sheep, a species that generally don’t pose quite as much of a damage risk to the panels as some other ruminants, provide the vegetation control. It will vary depending on several factors, but the compensation for grazing to the sheep owner can be $20 up to several hundred dollars per acre. Not to mention, the fences are new and tight, and the panels provide excellent summer shade. More information about budgets, benefits, and previous grazing projects can be found at the American Solar Grazing Association website; https://www.solargrazing.org/ .
Now it should be pointed out that solar grazing is more than just dropping off a load of ewes at a site, slapping ourselves on the back for finding such an opportunity, and then coming back in a couple weeks to make sure the float hasn’t fallen off the water trough. In reality, the sheep will need to be monitored as will the level of vegetation, which is ultimately the goal for the solar company, to keep the weeds/grass down. However, as we all know, overgrazing isn’t the answer either, because what will grow back likely won’t be palatable and might have thorns on it ready to do battle with beast or man alike. Such is life in Texas, even our plants can be mean and tough. So the solution is usually to develop a forage-crop through seeding and perennial management. Produce something the sheep will eat and thrive on, but don’t graze it to the point of killing it off. This will likely mean grazing on the solar sites will also not be year-round.
As solar becomes more established in our area, I anticipate that it won’t be long before sheep will be a common occurrence under panels throughout the Concho Valley and grazing opportunities might be hard to come by. However, this generally is a pro-sheep area with ranchers and farmers already scouring the landscape for lease country. I encourage you to broaden your horizons and look for chances to graze solar sites wherever they are being put in across Texas, because there is a tremendous upside for both parties to have sheep under the panels. Not to overpromise on something we can’t deliver, but we have kicked around the idea of hosting a solar grazing conference here in Texas sometime in the future, be on the lookout for more information if that is something that ends up coming together. I know I have said it before, but I am really optimistic about the future of sheep production in the U.S. They are versatile, sustainable, valuable, good for the land, and generate fantastic commodities to eat or wear. Continuing to find ways to produce them in a dynamic world is going to be a win-win for all.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7220. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.