Last spring we shared a series of stories from the American Solar Grazing Association on the increase in solar developments, and how sheep grazing is becoming an important part of managing vegetation so solar panels work most effectively. The first in the series described the opportunities and potential income for sheep graziers. In Part 2, we met Ashley Bridge, an independent contractor who shared insights into pricing and flock leasing arrangement. In Part 3, we learned about Julie Bishop’s operation and how she works with solar developers to design arrays that work well for sheep grazing and the ins and outs of grazing logistics.
This week we’re coming back to the series with a look at how a maintenance company expanded to include sheep grazing as one of its services. We hope this series gives you insights that could help you design your own grazing service.
Carolina Solar Services (CSS) was originally started as an operations and management company providing electrical and vegetative management services to solar companies. Company founder Zack Hobbs thought sheep grazing would be a good alternative to mowing, increasing site safety and saving time and labor. So, in 2016 he added 80 sheep to balance out mechanical and chemical management. Grazing is balanced with other options to best suit the site and available labor force with people tending to woody vegetation and broom sedge that sheep don’t eat.
As both the flock size and solar acreage he was managing scaled up, Zack was challenged by the time required to handle sheep. To keep the grazing going, he hired experienced stockman Brock Phillips. Today, Brock manages 590 sheep on 300 acres of solar sites.
Ewes winter and lamb on the Hobbs farm near Durham, NC. They head out to the solar arrays by early May, and work as late as November. When the ewes are at work on the solar sites, they graze in 3-5-acre paddocks and uses high stocking density. Each paddock lasts about 4-7 days with 200-300 ewes. Vegetation can grow fast and thick in North Carolina, but there can be droughts too, so everything is calibrated to the weather and growing patterns. As with any kind of grazing, there is no one formula to follow. Brock points out that close observation and planning are key to success.
Lambs are typically sold every year at auction, but this year CSS is working on creating a better marketing program for their lamb in their local area. This kind of marketing has taken a back seat to the landscaping and grazing services because the company has focused is on providing quality vegetative management.
Efficient Fencing and Watering Is Key
Paddocks are fenced with two strands of poly wire that run along the low side of the panels with posts placed along the electrical layouts to guide the way. The ends of the fence are connected to the chain link perimeter fence with a plastic gate handle that hooks into the chain link. Each fence line is string trimmed and electrified with 8-9000 volts to keep sheep in. Sheep are watered from a 300-gallon water tank on Brock’s truck and he uses water and mineral feeders help lure sheep to certain areas. When it’s time to move Brock has a border collie, a portable corral, and a double-decker trailer for hauling.
Clients say having the sheep and Brock on site makes them feel more comfortable and secure about their investment. The sheep are very gentle on the solar equipment and Brock can spot and report any anomalies on site. The people in the communities near the solar sites are also thrilled to see the sheep at work and it brings agriculture into neighborhoods that have been lacking livestock.
This year, Carolina Solar Services is trialing sheep services on a subscription payment system that is based on a per-acre price. Their goal is to create a more pastoral look while increasing the biological diversity and soil health of the land they work on.
Zack says that there is a very big opportunity for sheep farmers to form networks like the American Solar Grazing Association to enhance coordination with large solar companies and help staff understand the benefits of working with sheep, as well as site modifications to site setups that improve the ability fo shepherds and sheep to do their work. ASGA helps educate and advocate by developing and sharing solar grazing best practices with both farmers and solar developers.