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Rodney Kott Rodney Kott
(photo Carol Flaherty)

Roving sheep chew on Montana weeds

By Evelyn Boswell

One day in May, John Lehfeldt rose early and loaded hundreds of ewes and lambs into a truck. His back to the morning sun and his face toward the Rockies, he drove his bleating cargo across the waistline of Montana from Lavina to Deer Lodge, passing through Checkerboard and the Big Belt Mountains.

He arrived at the 5 Rockin' MS ranch and stayed there a day or two to make sure his sheep were OK at this summer camp of sorts where mothers and babies are encouraged to eat their favorite foods. Then Lehfeldt drove the six hours back to central Montana, while his sheep and sheepherder stayed in southern Powell County. Sometime between August and mid-October, Lehfeldt welcomed them home.

sheep (photo Erin Raley)

"It seems to be working well. As a whole, everybody has been really happy with it," Lehfeldt said about the long-distance partnership that matches his sheep with weed-infested property. Lehfeldt's relationship with the 5 Rockin' MS is one of many such partnerships fostered through a research project being conducted by Montana State University in cooperation with the Montana Wool Growers Association. Now in its third year, the project is designed to benefit the sheep industry and property owners alike by seeing what sheep can do about the noxious weed problem in Montana, said Rodney Kott, MSU Extension Sheep Specialist.

Chemicals and insects work against noxious weeds, he said, but herbicides are expensive and insects are more a long-term remedy. Noxious weeds like leafy spurge, spotted knapweed and Dalmatian Toadflax are considered the No. 1 environmental threat to western wildlands. Montana has an estimated eight million acres that are seriously infested.

"The project is mostly leafy spurge because the basic research has pretty well been done on leafy spurge," Kott said. "Now we have to take that research and apply it to the landscape." That has meant moving thousands of sheep around Montana and letting them eat as much leafy spurge as they want for months at a time, Kott said. When the project began in 2002, the sheep grazed four or five sites around Montana. This year, they grazed 31. Approximately 42,000 sheep, 100,000 acres, 1,000 landowners and 26 sheep producers were involved in the 2004 weed projects.

Trips like Lehfeldt's 260-mile journey are common, added Jim Moore, regional Extension agent with the Montana Sheep Institute. One of the longest is a 400-mile trek from Alzada to Ennis. The sheep were yearlings that didn't have lambs. Alzada doesn't have the number of noxious weeds that the Ennis area does, Moore said.

Property owners and sheep growers share the cost of transporting the sheep, with some outside funds available. The land managers and growers are paired with the help of MSU and the Montana Wool Growers Association.

"We are really not involved in that arrangement other than putting them together," Kott said. "We assist. We are not sheep brokers. We come in and help both sides design the grazing program and make recommendations to reach the goals of our project."

To monitor the results, the researchers set up "utilization cages" so they can clip the weeds after the sheep are gone and see what they've eaten. The researchers also help ranchers find permanent sites for taking periodic photos. The photos will show the long-term effects of grazing.

Jim Moore Jim Moore (photo Suzi Taylor)

"It's working wonderfully," Moore said. "We are starting to have a significant impact on the weeds statewide." A 2004 report from the Montana Sheep Institute said the sheep have reduced the percentage of leafy spurge on study sites by an average of 70 percent and gave cattle an immediate increase in forage.

Nathan Miller, manager of the 5 Rockin' MS, said leafy spurge used to account for 60 percent of the plants growing on that ranch. Lehfeldt's sheep have dramatically reduced that statistic, however. Approximately 1,500 of Lehfeldt's sheep grazed 5,000 acres on the ranch last summer.

"We were amazed at, for one, the amount of native existing grass plants that were putting out solid growth and two, the open patches where there used to be solid canopy," Miller said. "The sheep have broken it up quite a bit and created open areas for the native plants and desirable plants to really begin to grow."

Leafy spurge tends to grow in patches, and cattle refuse to graze an area where weeds cover more than 40 percent of the ground, Kott said. Leafy spurge, once it's established, is almost impossible to kill.

The study has meant moving thousands of sheep around Montana and letting them eat as much leafy spurge as they want for months at a time.

Sheep graze leafy spurge on a hillside near Missoula. (photo Suzi Taylor)

The mobile sheep program will continue and expand, according to the researchers. More people are inquiring about participation, and more questions are being raised by the research.

Lehfeldt, whose sheep started eating leafy spurge 20 years ago and joined the MSU project three summers ago, likens the experience to a dinner party. Participants need to mind their manners, he said, and leave when everyone is still smiling. Land managers and sheep producers need to be able to read each other and keep an eye on water supplies and drought conditions, he said. They have to know when it's time for the sheep to go home.

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