Montana State University

Sheep Institute a natural step toward weed control

May 14, 2002 -- MSU-Bozeman News Service

Using sheep to control leafy spurge costs a fraction of the price of chemical spraying. The sheep prefer the weeds, which provide them with more nutrition than grasses.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN--Montana State University recently received a $400,000 USDA grant to fund a statewide Sheep Institute. The Montana Sheep Institute is a cooperative program of MSU, the Montana Wool Growers Association and the Montana sheep industry.

The project will help increase the competitiveness of Montana's sheep industry by using sheep in large-scale weed management systems, reducing lamb mortality and improving income through new wool and lamb marketing strategies.

Rodney Kott, MSU Extension sheep specialist and Sheep Institute principal investigator, said that the grant grew from requests by Montana sheep producers and land managers for help in developing weed grazing programs and other efforts to help Montana's sheep producers survive economically. Rapid changes in world wool and lamb markets over the last 10 years have caused major profit losses to producers, marking a drop in Montana sheep numbers from 500,000 in 1990 to 250,000 in 2002.

"Land managers were a surprise partner," said Kott. The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Montana Weed Control Association are looking to sheep as a tool in battling noxious weeds like leafy spurge. Weed grazing operations have proved successful, said Kott, but the practice has never been adopted on a large and organized scale. The Montana Sheep Institute will develop a system that brings sheep producers land managers together.

"This program is very important to Montana as we work to address the problem of noxious weeds that are crowding out grass in our range lands," said Bob Gilbert, secretary/treasurer of the Montana Wool Growers Association. "Not only do we (Montana's agricultural economy) win, but also wildlife that depends on rangeland for survival." The Montana Wool Growers Association is a non-profit organization that represents the interests of the majority of Montana's sheep producers.

Wayne Pearson, weed supervisor in Stillwater County, has used sheep in a 28,000-acre leafy spurge control program over the past five years. "It's the only way we've found to control whole areas of leafy spurge," he said. "We're actively encouraging the Montana Sheep Institute so we can keep sheep numbers up. If we don't have enough sheep, we won't be able to use them to control our leafy spurge."

Pearson employs about 4,300 sheep from May through July to browse leafy spurge leaves and flowers before the plants can make viable seed. The sheep eat the weeds first, and are moved before they resort to eating grass. Pearson's weed control program also uses insects for bio-control and herbicide for spot control of new or isolated infestations.

Using sheep to browse weeds costs as little as 60 cents per acre, compared with a cost of $35 per acre to spray from a helicopter, said Pearson. "If you tried to spray 28,000 acres you couldn't afford it start with, and you'd start getting residue in the groundwater," he explained. Currently, Montana weed trust fund dollars compensate sheep producers $1 a head per month for grazing services. The Stillwater County site is a regular destination for BLM-sponsored tours, and the National Wool Growers Association will visit this year.

"Rodney Kott has shown real support for what we're doing," said Pearson. We're hoping that this new funding program will be able to encourage more statewide sheep programs."

A full-time Sheep Institute project coordinator will develop and implement educational programs for grower activities focusing on weed grazing and profitability. The coordinator will also collaborate with other MSU Extension personnel to assist sheep producers with value-added marketing efforts throughout the state, such as the wool-pool marketing programs in south-central and northeastern Montana, and lamb marketing efforts in western and south-central Montana.

The grant will fund the first two years of a five-year plan, through April of 2004. The focus of the initial phase will be to develop, test and implement management strategies that capitalize on existing research and experience.

Contact: Dr. Rodney Kott, MSU-Bozeman (406) 994-3415; Bob Gilbert, Montana Woolgrowers Association (406) 442-1330; Wayne Pearson, Stillwater County Weed Supervisor, (406) 328-4165