Expat Life

A goat in sheep’s clothing: An expat farmer’s experiment mixing animals and permaculture

By Rob Gray

Before coming to Ecuador, I had put together a rather detailed plan to do a commercial permaculture farm that benefited from the integration of raising both plants and animals. In our first year, we chose to work solely with plants and as we improved the soil, we began planting an orchard of mangoes, avocadoes, mulberries and loquats on one area of the land. The orchard was specially designed to incorporate an animal pasture between the rows of trees. Permaculture loves the idea, (and so do I), of stacking multiple functions on a single area of land.

World-class Charolaise cattle.

The animals I had planned to integrate into the permaculture farm were cattle, pigs and chickens. So, in our second year, we began our animal breeding program with Charolaise cattle, a French variety that is considered a world class breed for meat. When I first saw these magnificent animals, I thought they had come from a Star Wars movie. We quickly determined that were just too big for the orchard pasture and decided that they belonged on a much larger pasture where currently they are doing well and producing calves.

That still left the question of what animals should we put on the orchard pasture? We had definite plans to use the area to pasture our chickens, but there was plenty of taller grass for a larger animal as well. A suggestion for putting goats on the orchard pasture caused me to shiver with horror. I remember seeing the destruction goats were capable of and have heard stories of far worse. Several permaculture sources make the case that: Goats have no place on a permaculture farm. So I quickly dismissed the idea. Next, we talked about getting some sheep which seemed like a great idea. Who doesn’t like those cute and cuddly animals? And their lambs are the cutest of cute. So we acquired some sheep for a breeding program and began to raise them on our orchard pasture.

Sheep and baby lamb doing very well.

I must admit, the sheep did very well and did, in fact, produce the cutest little lambs. But, almost from the get-go we had difficulty keeping the sheep in their paddocks on the orchard pasture. We had what we thought was a good solution using electrified wire fencing. (That’ll stop them!) But amazingly, and to our surprise, they didn’t even seem to notice the fence was electrified. The sheep’s thick coat insulated them from the hot current and between their digging and climbing skills (which reminded me of goats) they were able to go over, under or just squeeze through the fence.

Notice the sheep fur tangled in the barbed wire.

We were determined to get this to work, so we doubled the number of posts in the fence to tighten it up. When that didn’t help much, we replaced the wire with barbed wire figuring that their coats would get tangled in the barbs and restrain the sheep. We were right, they did get tangled, but it didn’t stop the sheep. The fence just became decorated with their fur. I imagine we looked like a bunch of keystone cops as we tried a variety of other barrier methods all to no avail.

I have to stop here and say, we might have been able to solve the problem by doing what most farmers do, and that is tethering each animal to a stake. But I do not believe in the routine tethering of animals and so that was not an option. Also, I have noticed that, even in the best of circumstances, tethered animals occasionally escape and immediately go where you don’t want them. And on a permaculture farm that is a dangerous circumstance.

Mango Tree damage from the sheep.

Speaking of “where you don’t want them,” we were surprised by these grass-eating animals’ overwhelming desire to eat our young orchard trees that included the leaves, stems and bark. As we attempted to protect the trees, the sheep became more and more aggressive and seemingly spent their whole day trying (and some eventually succeeding) to penetrate the tree barriers to get to the trees. When they were able to escape from the paddocks, they would make a mad dash to our vegetable gardens and, in a matter of minutes, wipe out whole sections of crops. Hmmm. Something had to be done, as there seemed to be no solution to the intermittent crop loss and the devastating orchard tree damage.

The sheep really wrecked this bed of beets.

After exhausting all options, we decided to contact another sheep farmer not too far away and sold our sheep to him. So ended our sheep experiment. We were both saddened and relieved. After removing all the tree barriers and assessing the damage, (which was significant), we ended up having to replace a number of our mango and avocado trees. We hope many of the other damaged trees will survive, but they will require a lengthy recovery period before being whole again. We had made several attempts to integrate the sheep where they would be a valuable asset to our permaculture farm. In the process, we learned a valuable lesson: Sheep are really “Goats in Sheep’s Clothing” and have no place on a permaculture farm

We have since started our pastured chicken project on the orchard pasture using a specially designed chicken tractor protector that is moved daily to fresh pasture. The chickens provide fertilizer to the pasture while eating the grass and bugs along with their custom-mixed feed. We hope this project will be more successful than the Goats in Sheep’s Clothing.

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Rob Gray runs the Gran Roca Project, (www.granroca.net), a sustainable commercial permaculture farm on a landmark property in the Yunguilla Valley, southwest of Cuenca. High quality tree fruits, berries, and a large variety of both native and heirloom vegetables and herbs are produced with pastured cattle and chickens also integrated into the mix. Rob has recently started selling his fresh produce on the farm and in Cuenca. He also publishes a weekly newsletter of the goings-on at the farm; you can sign-up on his website.

  • Nat Goodale

    Having represented the entire northeast to the American Sheep Producer’s Council, and having raised sheep and lambs for ten years in Maine, I know of your troubles. The solution that worked for me was to train the sheep about the shock treatment of the fence (get them shocked). Then most of them will respect the enclosure. Then there will be ring leaders, escape artists, that buck the system and the only solution is to get ride of them (stew?). I will be raising sheep on my farm in Victoria-del-Portete. Will keep you informed.

    • Michael

      Electrocute your sheep? One wonders why natives don’t do the same to us.

  • Rebecca

    Cool! sorry the sheep didn’t work out. This sounds like the mix in Joel Salatin’s farm. But the cattle keep the grass low and the chickens follow, spreading out and making their own manure fertilizer, and keeping the bad bugs and worms in check. It’s too bad your cattle are so huge. Maybe try a dairy variety?

  • Magdalena Herreshoff

    Great story!

  • Janet Lowther

    First thing I learned about sheep is that typical fence chargers will not do. You need a fence charger that will put out at LEAST 8,000 volts with a joule or so of energy per pulse to get their attention. Ones for cows often run as little as 600 volts. I got a fence charger made in New Zealand from an outfit in Iowa called Premiere 1. That one worked.

    I have to admit that I never did figure out how to get them not to damage trees, ‘though. . .

  • MountainHombre

    Rob,

    I’ve got to say I really admire you. You’re a great writer and sound like a wonderful man too. I could not go through all of your trials and tribulations and maintain your attitude. I knew about your weather problems, but animals too . . .

  • Thank you everyone for your replies, recommendations and kindness. And yes, our area has received incredible amounts of rainfall pretty much continuously since mid-December.

    We are taking a page from Joel Salatin’s farm and had planned to use sheep to keep the grass low and follow with the chickens. We are using some of our baby cows to do the job now.

    There is a missing picture in the article of our chicken tractor that should have been inserted before the last paragraph that contains our first crop of chickens fed a Joel Salatin style feed mix (not the commercial feed which contains antibiotics and other things I don’t want to feed chickens.) Interested readers who wish to follow our journey can do so by going to our website and signing up for our weekly newsletter.

    Thank you again, Rob