Tony and Belinda Somers from Somersrust Babydoll Sheep Stud have shared their experience of keeping Babydoll sheep in their organic pear and apple cider orchard in Elands NSW.
Orchards are a lot more diverse in the types of trees that are grown when compared to vineyards. There is increasing interest in sustainable organic orchard management integrating Babydoll sheep as is being done with the Somersrust flock.
Babydoll sheep can be used to control orchard floor pasture, tree suckers and to reduce herbicides and soil compaction in deciduous orchards growing pome fruit (Apple, Pear, Quince, Medlar), stone fruit (Peach, Nectarine, Apricot) or nut trees (Almonds, Walnuts). Short term intensive grazing, cover crop management, seasonal orchard requirements and food safety risks need to be considered.
Young establishing orchards have different management considerations compared to older established orchards. Young trees can be seriously damaged by sheep and tree guards are essential for their protection. Babydoll sheep can reach up trees to a height of about 1.2m. They may also push and rub against young trees to eat leaves.
Securely staking young trees at planting with strong stakes or metal reo bar rods pushed 500mm to 600mm into the ground provides a strong anchor for attaching tree guards. Plastic or wire mesh guards about 1.5m long can be placed over young trees and secured to the stake.
Trees should be trained to a height that the sheep cannot reach. This is fine for standard trees grafted onto vigorous rootstocks but trees on dwarfing rootstocks in high density orchards will require additional barriers such as movable electric fences.
Older trees can be protected by more sturdy guards. Here are some examples.
Electric fencing and cell grazing is effective for keeping Babydoll sheep between orchard rows in young orchards. Larger areas can be used in established mature orchards where the risk of trunk damage is minimal. Electric netting fence or 3-4 strands of poly wire or turbo wire on tread in posts can be used. Please not that netting fencing can present a strangulation risk to small lambs if they get their heads caught.
The essential requirement is to train the sheep to the electric fence before moving them into the orchard grazing cells. This can be done by placing a temporary electric fence within a securely fenced area so that any sheep that go through the electric fence while learning about it do not escape.
Once trained, electric fences provide effective containment since Babydoll sheep are very respectful of them (even when not energized).
Our orchard grows organic heritage cider apples and pears so we are cautious about food safety contamination issues. We have planned a 90 day pre-harvest period where the sheep are removed from the mature orchards where fruit will be harvested. At this stage our orchards are still non bearing so this has not been done.
Cover crop management is also a consideration. We use cool season pasture mixes of white and red clover, rye grasses, chicory and plantain sown using minimal till techniques during autumn. Sheep grazing is excluded during the early growth stage to allow clovers to establish and set seed. This sequence of no till, cover crop growth, sheep urine and sheep droppings combined with nitrogen fixing legumes works to add nitrogen to the orchard.
No fungicides or herbicides are used in our organic orchard but copper-based fungicides are regularly used in conventional vineyards and orchards. Precautions should always be taken when any agricultural chemical is used. Withholding periods for sheep grazing need to be followed to minimise the risk of chemical residues and toxicity hazards for sheep. In particular, British breeds of sheep including Babydolls are especially susceptible to Copper poisoning.