Where wool begins: a solar grazing story

Where wool begins: a solar grazing story

I’m pleased as can be to have been asked to contribute to this felting and fibre blog, though the most I’ve ever done with the art side is creating a happy face on a wool dryer ball (it was very satisfying!).

I was asked (I think?) to share on this blog as a raiser of wool — a much different, but key, part of the fibre world!

Our farm is Shady Creek Lamb Co., based near Kinburn, Ontario. Our sheep, however, end up living all over the place because a key part of our farm is solar grazing.

What is solar grazing? We have two main sheep flocks, and each one is tasked with doing the “mowing” at commercial solar sites. The companies that own and run the solar sites pay us to use sheep to mow instead of using tractors and mechanical mowing. Each of the two sites is 200 acres.

A ewe stands under a solar panel
A ewe stands under a solar panel. Note the burrs. (EDF Renewables, 2021)

We run all wool sheep, and some of our wool has even been used for “real” wool projects — but we also have a good portion of our wool that is nothing more than compost, for a few reasons. One, we do have a fair amount of Romanov genetics in our flock. Romanov lambs have beautiful soft coats, often with colour, but when the adult wool comes in it’s more like hair. The double coat and wire texture make it the least favourite of our shearer and anyone who wants our wool!

The balance of our flock has some lovely wool. We usually run purebred rams — Canadian Arcott, Suffolk, Shropshire, and Border Leicester, but we run some commercial rams too. Our most recent addition is the Clun Forest. Those first babies will be born in May.

Beyond the obvious Romanov wool, we also battle different issues with wool quality than some barn-based farms. In winter, our ewes eat hay that’s been unrolled on snow. This actually keeps the wool quite clean and tidy. It’s the grazing aspect that ruins our wool for much more than compost — because we deal with burdock in one of our solar sites. Burrs are hated by us, our shearer, and anyone who hopes to do anything with wool, but they are a struggle to get rid of on the one site.

Sheep graze a field of peas, barley, wheat and sunflowers

Our sheep also spend the autumn and early winter grazing cover crops, which is a new venture for us. Grazing cover crops — a mix of plants seeded after a winter wheat crop comes off to decrease erosion and feed soil microbes — has been a natural extension of the grazing season for our sheep.

We usually have our ewes sheared in April, but because we run multiple flocks, we have split shearing into two times of the year, with at least one of those shearing days happening at the solar. It’s a challenge to have the equipment and power and people power (and shade!) on-site, but we’ve made it work.

Shearing is an important part of the flock’s health management. Wool sheep do not shed their wool, so it must be removed every year. Good wool cover keeps sheep very warm in the winter, but it needs to be removed before the heat of summer sets in. What’s more, too much or dirty wool can cause skin infections, harbour parasites, or lead to unhealthy lambs. Shearing does not hurt the sheep, and it gives us a hands-on, close-up look at our ewe’s body condition before lambing. It costs about $5 per sheep to have them sheared, but that is just for the shearer: we pay two or three people full wages to help for the four or five days a year of shearing. Wool itself is always sold at a net loss, even if we get decent quality.

Fun fact: wool composts beautifully, so even though the infested wool can’t be “used,” it does have value as we compost it and apply the nutrients back to the pasture and hay fields.

Please ask questions! Next blog post I will write about our guardian dogs (pictured above is Nala, a Great Pyrenees/Karakachan cross. She loves her sheep but she loves belly rubs and snacks more).

13 thoughts on “Where wool begins: a solar grazing story

  1. Hello Lyndsey and thank you for your interesting post. Your sheep look very contented and what a lovely life they have as ‘nature’s lawnmowers’. Solar grazing and cover crop grazing make such a lot of sense – it’s a win-win for everybody. Shame about the burdock though 🙁

    Looking forward to reading about your guardian dogs – where is Nala in the photo?

  2. Welcome to the blog, that was very interesting Lindsey. I’ve always thought “why don’t they run grazing animals under the solar panels here (UK)?” Maybe they do but I’ve never seen any and the panels I’ve seen are set quite low to the ground so it would need a short animal to do it I think. Such a waste of good fodder. I think they must weed kill, as what I see when I drive past a couple of solar “farms” near us is just grass – no burdock or any other weeds.
    Talking of Burdock, I wonder if you or one of your enterprising friends from the Log Farm Market might think about making Dandelion and Burdock drink? I don’t know if you have it in Canada, it used to be very popular over here when I was a kid, and some of the newer drinks makers are bringing it back. It might be a way of reducing the burrs in your sheep’s fleece? The compost you make from those fleeces must really help in recycling the burdock plants!
    I look forward to reading more about the guardian dogs. I’ve just had a look at your facebook page and love the picture of the penned sheep with dog in the middle. It was a minute or so before I realised that that wasn’t a sheep looking at the camera!

    1. Yes! There is solar grazing in the UK, but it is not common (nor is it here. We are one of maybe 10 farmers who do it right now).

      The burdock is a major challenge — and spread out over 200 acres. It’s going to take a mix of grazing, mowing, spot spraying, and hand weeding. It’ll take years to get ahead of it. It’s a very tough to control weed and spreads so easily!

  3. Welcome Lyndsey! I enjoyed hearing about your grazing methods, it makes sense and hopefully will catch on in other places. I am looking forward to “meeting” your dogs.

  4. Welcome Lyndsey! What a fascinating first post! I live in a rural area in Ireland. We have some some sheep farmers dealing in everything from rare breeds to sheep whose fleeces are only suitable for carpet making. Soon we will have a local solar farm. It will be big. But we also have issues with dogs killing sheep so I don’t think the sheep could be let into the solar farm. Such a shame! Do you have similar issues and if so how do you deal with it.
    Thanks Hélène

    1. We contend with coyotes and wolves here. We run two mature guardian dogs per 100 ewes, give or take, plus we cross-fence the sites with electric fence and move the sheep every day or two. This is so they do a good job mowing AND to keep our coyote problem in check. Last year was particularly bad on cover crops — we lost nearly 20 animals in 2 months (but didn’t lose a single one at the solar!)

  5. Hi, Lyndsey! Thanks for sharing your flock with us. I love the concept of solar grazing, it tickles my eco-friendly bones to no end. Do the owners of the land want sheep because they won’t damage the solar panels like machinery might? Who buys your wool? Do the sheep have names?
    (You did say “ask questions” :D)

    Looking forward to hearing about the pups next!

    1. It’s a win-win-win for sure! Grazing the site IS easier on the panels, plus we offset huge amounts of fossil fuel use while also making meat and wool, plus the habitat under the panels thrives, especially with managed grazing (there’s always something blooming!)

      The solar companies are very keen on choosing sheep over equipment, and are very supportive. They have ecological goals, too. Plus, sheep can fit under the panels better than mowers, so they actually do a better job in many ways.

      We have sold our wool to the Wool Growers (last resort), we sell a few of the purebred or better fleeces individually, and we have sold it to Topsy Farms for making their blanket collection. More than half is composted, however. Selling it to the Wool Growers isn’t worth the fuel to drop it off, and selling a fleece at a time doesn’t work when you shear 400 sheep in two days…

      A few sheep have names. Most of the rams do (but there are only about 20 of them), and a few of our ewes were once 4H sheep for my oldest, so they keep their names. A few of the others get descriptive names (i.e. brown ewe, one-eye (for reasons that are obvious), and my fave, Cindy Crawford — she has a dark spot on her lip!)

  6. It’s great to learn about the farm side of wool! Thank you for your post.
    I have seen quite a few small places where goats are used for mowing, but I have never seen something with such a huge flock as you describe!
    I heard that a lot of growers in UK are now going towards breeds that do not need shearing: do you think that you also will go that way in the future?
    I look forward to your next post on sheepdogs, it will be appreciated by my whole family in fact!

    1. There are plenty of hair sheep (they mostly shed their coat every year) in Canada too! Australia is taking a new stab at another hair breed and having some success. We like our wool sheep, as we have access to strong genetics for grazing — the depth of genetics for hair sheep just isn’t at the same level, plus, we needed to grow quickly to graze the solar sites. There aren’t any flocks of hair sheep big enough for us to buy from 100 to 200 at time (plenty of hobbyists choose hair sheep so they don’t have to worry about shearing). And, we love what wool is and can do — we want to see so many new (old?!) applications for it.

We'd love to hear your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: