The small flock of 12 Karakul sheep might not seem like much. Yet this herd is grazing innovatively, within purposely planted silvopasture orchards, on the 12-acre regenerative All for One One for All Farm (AOOA). This nonprofit farm was founded in 2021 by mother and daughter duo Ariane and Alix Daguin.

Ariane is the founder of D’Artagnan artisanal food brand, with the intent of showcasing a biodiverse, community-focused farm which thrives via responsible farming practices. In this regenerative agroforestry approach, trees and shrubs are specifically selected for use on the same land as livestock and horticultural crops.

The multifaceted farm also raises laying hens on pasture and keeps bees. They grow tree fruit as well as brambles and other small perennial fruits. There is a farm stand as well as a farm kitchen where they cook and sell food. Educational tours, workshops and events occur regularly, and private events can be hosted as well.

Throughout the farm, native plants and trees are highlighted, including most of the fodder trees used for livestock grazing. They utilize brush piles to attract insects and snakes, fertilize crops with organic chicken manure and use organic-approved crop protectants such as Neem and wood chip mulches. They practice IPM. Equipment, primarily for establishing trees, includes a rototiller, bush hog and subsoiler.

The farming practice which has taken root as the cornerstone of the farm, integrating crop and livestock production, is silvopasturing. Sheep graze within the orchard for multiple reasons: to promote animal well-being, enhance the biodiversity of the flora, enrich soils, provide habitat for pollinators and wildlife and promote water infiltration and tree health.

Herd Dynamics

The flock began with the purchase of two pregnant ewes in spring 2021. All ewes are registered with the Karakul Shepherds’ Alliance. There are currently six breeding ewes, three replacement ewes who will lamb in 2024 and there are plans to process two wethers and one cull ewe this autumn for meat.

The flock grazes together part of the year. Breeding ewes are separated out in autumn, and then again when their lambs are weaned in summer, and the ewes are milked. Otherwise, the entire herd is managed as one.

They’ve been weaning as early as 30 days, and going until 60 days or until there is reliable pasture. This has resulted in growth rates around two-thirds of a pound per day. They do creep feed, with a medicated feed, beginning a week prior to weaning.

Breeding occurs in November. The ewes have been on lush pastures, had time off from lactation and are in prime condition at this time. Lambing occurs in April in the barn.

“April lambing is much less stressful than earlier in the winter, and it matches up with our goals of getting the sheep on pasture in May to start milking,” Eli Roberts, who manages the silvopasture system for the farm, said.

Grazing Design

About 10 of the farm’s 15 acres are utilized. The farm itself is hilly and not well-suited to annual crops. Pasture grazing occurs within the orchard blocks, where fodder trees have been planted amongst the rows of tree fruit specifically to provide browse for the sheep.

Orchard rows are 42 feet apart, which allows the grazing paddocks to fit between the rows. Fodder trees are established 14 feet from each row.

That arrangement allows the sheep to be fenced in rectangular paddocks of 3-by-7-foot electric netting panels, preventing them from accessing orchard trees. Modified 36-foot sections of the fencing are used for cross-fencing the paddocks, simplifying moves between paddocks.

Coyotes are prevalent in the area, but they’ve had no losses yet, which Roberts attributes to the very hot perimeter fencing, which runs off of a plug-in energizer. Fencing farther away is powered by solar.

Irrigation to the pasture comes from a well on the farm, which serves the residence, the farm kitchen, the orchard, the gardens and the livestock. Fodder trees are watered during the first two establishment years, but then rely on mulch to retain moisture. Quick connect valves, located within 100 feet of each paddock, allow ease of livestock watering.

They are using inexpensive shade structures in the paddocks until the fodder trees mature enough to provide shade.

Each of the 60 orchard grazing blocks is designed to support the flock for about two days. They aim to keep the blocks rested for a minimum of 60 days post-grazing.

Supplement hay was required last August, but as the fodder trees grow, they will provide additional alternative browse when pasture growth slows in summer. They also harvested branches from fodder trees outside of the paddocks and brought them to the sheep.

Growing trees for grazing

Feeding supplemental willow fodder in August. Photo courtesy of AOOA Farm

Pasture forages include a mix of cool season grasses and legumes: timothy, orchardgrass, several fescues, quackgrass, clover, trefoil, stiltgrass, bindweed, chicory, burdock, thistle and a section of reed canarygrass. Planting annuals isn’t really an option due to the hilly terrain and odd layout of the pastures.

False indigo can grow well in the wet soils found on the farm. Mulberry is high in protein and highly digestible. Black locust and willow provide tannins, which help prevent worms. Fodder trees also keep the sheep from grazing too low, reducing the parasite load.

Sheep begin grazing each spring when the grasses are eight to 10 inches tall, which is just prior to the fodder trees leafing out. The grazing season runs mid-May through mid-October.

Once the grass stops growing in autumn, the sheep will strip the bark of the fodder trees, so stockpiling forages isn’t really feasible. The herd is housed in the barn during winter with access to the barnyard. They feed hay, purchased locally, in winter.

When the orchard trees reach bearing age, the sheep will not be able to graze during harvest season for food safety reasons. As both the fodder and orchard trees mature, the growth of pasture grasses is expected to be affected by added shade. Once the fodder trees grow too large, they’ll start competing with the fruit trees and will need to be cut down.

“Some research suggests that partly-shaded conditions help keep the grass quality higher for longer into the summer. Our trees are just getting to that point so we’re hoping for some forage quality effects too,” Roberts said.

“The fodder trees are kept low and relatively shrubby so that the sheep can reach about half the leaves, and the other half provide shade and reserve feed,” Roberts said. “The sheep have ready access to high-tannin plants like bird’s-foot trefoil, black locust and willow; they browse above the level of the grass, and they have access to good nutrition throughout the summer, so we haven’t had internal parasite issues. The deer mostly stay out, so our meningeal worm risk is low.”

The purposefully designed silvopasture grazing plan keeps the flock healthy and thriving. The sheep are used for wool, meat and milk. The ewes are milked seasonally, and their milk is processed into value-added products such as ricotta, creme caramel and yogurt. The wethers and cull ewes are processed for meat, which is used in the farm stand kitchen. Sheep are sheared twice per year, in March and September, with the wool processed into yarn.

by Tamara Scully