Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: The Sheep Are Baaaack!!


The sheep are baaack!

Though we remain in yet another drought year, it has more or less rained when it was supposed to, the grass has grown, and the sheep are once again dotting the green hills of the RSV vineyards after a two year absence.

Early and heavy winter rains meant we had plenty of forage when it came time to bring the (rental) sheep back. My shepherd usually calls sometime in early December to confirm the game is on, then again around the new year to figure out when he’ll bring the sheep in. They can come anytime from late December through mid-January – it just depends on the rains, how cold it’s been, and how the grass is growing. A typical season will have 8 to 10 weeks of grazing time and it takes a little over one month to rotationally graze through each vineyard. We usually get through at least two rotations.

The spigot, however, shut tight mid-December – leaving the ground wet enough for the grass to get going, but there were no re-fills to keep it growing. The forage has been coasting with the needle hovering on empty for pretty much the entire growing season. We had a storm or two that certainly helped, but there was still only enough grass to get the sheep through one rotation of each vineyard. Whatever, I’ll take it; it’s fabulous to have them back munching away.

This year, the sheep have gone by the end of the first week of March. All this sunshine is speeding up the wakening vines exponentially. We need to get the sheep out by bud swell in order to avoid damage. Each bud holds the promise of the year’s crop, our livelihood, and each scrape of a curious lamb’s teeth costs us. Towards the end of the season, my shepherd and I spend even more time on the phone and in person discussing the when and where of moving the sheep out – can they go back into that block one more time? This year, the answer was usually no. I’d walk it, see too much burgeoning bud life, and shake my head. It’s for this reason we save non-vineyard areas so we have a place to move the sheep to at a moment’s notice. Buds grow fast, especially in this unseasonable heat.

Having the sheep back is such a good thing – the vineyard floors are close-clipped, park-like, and I won’t be scrambling to get the weeds under control like last year. The sheep have digested the cover crop and spread their manure around – giving the soil a shot of much needed, plant friendly nutrition. Even the neighbors are happy to see them again.

All is well with the world – at least for this year. All I can do is cross my fingers for next.


Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.