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Sheep’s small stature, grazing habits and reduced water needs make them effective grazers too for managing prairie habitat.

Story By Megan Howell
PF Farm Bill Biologist, Murray County - Minnesota

Photos By Ann Wessel
Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

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Cattle seem to get all the attention when it comes to grazing upland habitat to renew, rejuvenate and refresh prairie grasses and forbs. Sheep don’t usually come to mind. But their small stature, varied diet, low water consumption and ease-of-transport make them a versatile tool for habitat managers.

If these sheep weren’t grazing, they would be eating hay starting in mid to late August. Chris Schmidt figures putting 200 ewes out to pasture saves about $25 a day in feed costs.

In a recent rotational grazing trial on a 45-acre CRP field in southwestern Minnesota, sheep showcased their habitat management skills by grazing the tallgrass prairie.

Chris Schmidt fills water tanks in a newly fenced rotational grazing paddock in Murray County, Minnesota. Water must be hauled in from Schmidt’s farm just up the road. Solar-powered, portable fencing makes setting up new paddocks easier.

Landowners Jim Sehl and Wendy Krueger had planned a prescribed burn that was halted due to Covid-19 restrictions. While scrambling to figure out how to get their required mid-contract management completed, Jim and Wendy met with neighboring producer, Chris Schmidt, who welcomed an opportunity for extra forage for his sheep.

Slayton-based Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist Megan Howell (right) and NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Allisa Wendland identify plants growing in the rotationally grazed prairie in Murray County, Minnesota.

After approval from proper CRP authorities, a rotational grazing plan was born. On an August day in 2020, 75 ewes were released onto the prairie. Every two to five days the flock was easily moved to a new three-quarters-acre paddock surrounded by solar fence netting. For 60 days sheep grazed the year’s new growth while trampling down old growth and opening pockets for the following season’s prairie to grow.

Chris Schmidt moves solar-powered fencing. Each rotationally grazed paddock was about three-quarters of an acre. The sheep were usually moved every three or four days.

Spring and summer 2021 saw the newly rejuvenated prairie alive. The addition of sheep on the prairie created a navigable ground layer and a flush of forbs and native grasses. “The regeneration this year was tenfold,” Schmidt said. “Songbirds. Butterflies. Bees. All that stuff is intertwined one way or another. We can’t have one without the other. Grazing increased that diversity — not only in plants, but wildlife.”

Chris Schmidt’s father, Dale, helps move the sheep to a new paddock. The process usually takes about two hours.

Grazing changes the vegetational structure and creates a variation of successional habitat within the prairie. The result? A much-welcomed invitation to grassland birds (such as ring-necked pheasants), pollinators and other wildlife in the area.

The sheep left the more mature, woodier big bluestem grass untouched. Instead they trampled around it to find more tender species, including more tender big bluestem, plus little bluestem, side-oats grama, wild bergamot, yarrow, purple prairie clover and some sunflower species.

In this trial, sheep were used as a general habitat management tool to revive the prairie. But their talent doesn’t stop there. Habitat managers have been training sheep to actively target problem and noxious species in prairies, and also to graze alongside cattle to clean up species cattle do not desire or cannot tolerate.

The hoof action of grazing sheep benefits wildlife such as pheasants, waterfowl, songbirds and pollinators.

Chris Schmidt said he was surprised what a difference two months of grazing made on land that hadn’t been grazed for many years. Compared with the 50-by-50-foot control plot, Schmidt said the grass in the grazed areas came back “10 times thicker and greener” the next spring. The diversity increased too: “It was amazing.”

While they may be small in stature, sheep can play a big role in managing the prairie! If you would like to learn more about utilizing sheep as a management tool contact:

Moove over little, cattle. Sheep are baack, and they can get pairie management done (and done right) Too!

This story was published as an Online Extra for the Pheasants Forever Journal. Become a Pheasants Forever member today to get the journal and make your voice heard for better habitat, more uplands, and public places to hunt.