Paicines Ranch Vineyard
Integrating Livestock as a Management Tool
Paicines Ranch, located south of Hollister, has been operated since the mid-19th century and was purchased by Sallie Calhoun and Matt Christiano in 2001. It consists of 7,600 acres in total, which is divided between 570 acres of farmland and the rest grazing land. The grazing land is temporarily leased to Joe Morris of T&O Cattle Co./Morris Grassfed Beef, which markets grassfed beef directly to the public. Paicines Ranch is managed by Kelly Mulville, who is a Certified Educator with Holistic Management International (HMI), and also a UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden graduate.
The irrigated land has been leased to large scale organic growers, but as those leases expire the ranch will assume farming with the intention of building soil health (increasing soil carbon, water infiltration, water holing capacity and soil biology), increasing biodiversity and integrating livestock into polycultures of perennial and annual crops.
On a separate hillside, the first phase (12.5 acres) of a 25-acre polyculture vineyard will be planted in the spring of 2017. The vineyard has been carefully designed to allow the integration of sheep at any time of the year.
To prepare the land the hillsides were disked lightly to smooth the surface before applying compost at 9.3 T/acre.
Spreading Compost - Fall 2014
During the second year cover crops were planted (rye, barley, lana vetch, crimson clover, radish) and planned grazing was used in order to cycle the nutrients and build soil health.
The compost application was followed by cattle grazing, at 7 animal days per acre in the winter/spring of 2014-2015. The site was leveled with a box scraper in the summer of 2015. Ripping of vine rows occurred in the fall of 2015. Sheep and cattle were grazed in winter-spring 2015-2016 at 67 animal days per acre.
Cattle Grazing Vineyard Site - 2015
Scraping - Summer 2015
Ripping - Fall 2015
Sheep Grazing Vineyard Site - Spring 2016
Cattle Grazing Vineyard Site - 2016
One of the really interesting things to see is the forage increase from 2015 to 2016 -- the yield went up by ten times, due to a combination of cover crop, grazing planning and slightly more rainfall.
The vineyard will be planted with 12 x 6 foot spacing, in part to allow for dry farming. Spanish and Rhone varietals will be planted along with one Greek varietal. Rootstocks to be used are 1103-P and 110-R. Although the intention is to dry-farm the vineyard, drip irrigation will be installed for initial establishment and to supplement dry years.
The trellis will be v-shaped, similar to the Watson system used in Texas. This tall trellis system will allow the vines to be trained high enough to graze sheep in the vineyard at any time of the year. Vines will be spur pruned with a divided canopy. The sheep will eat the suckers, the weeds, the cover crop, and the ends of the vine tendrils and cycle a portion of all this back into the soil through manure and urine. The sheep also incorporate litter into the soil with their hooves. This high trellis approach is an alternative to an earlier trial Kelly ran with electric fencing.
Kelly estimates the cost of establishment of the vineyard at $25-28,000 per acre.
Watson Trellis System
Sheep as a Management Strategy
The management strategy is to reduce equipment use and labor by thoughtful planned grazing of sheep: they will do the suckering, nutrient cycling, and vegetation control. While use of sheep in the winter is common in vineyards, they are typically taken out when the vines start to leaf out, since sheep will eat any grape leaves within reach. In an earlier trial in Sonoma, Mulville set out to find a way to graze sheep in vineyards at any time during the year.
“The trial was conducted on a 0.2 hectare vineyard in the Alexander Valley, of Northern California, during the winter, spring and early summer of 2009. Once the system was in place and tested, four medium-sized adult sheep were introduced and monitored for six months - three during which the vines were leafed out. Electrified net fencing was utilized to create small paddocks within the vineyard maintaining stock density at an equivalent of 79 sheep per hectare for most of the trial period.”1
Mulville found the trial accomplished the following:
- Eliminated the need for any mechanical cultivation, tillage or mowing both between rows and under the vines as this task was accomplished through simple grazing moves. This corresponded to 4-8 fewer tractors passes per row/per year and some of the forage consumed was converted to fertility in the vineyard.
- Eliminated the need for hand-suckering of the vine trunks as sheep browsing performed this task. Twenty hours of labour saved per year/per acre and suckers are converted to manure.
- Sheep consumed all canopy lateral and leaf thinnings (removed by hand and placed on ground). Converted this material into manure and eliminated need for disking into soil.
- Reduced on-site irrigation use by 80% from the previous year (2008) during which the vineyard was managed biodynamically and organically. Sheep were grazed from January until the end of March during the non-trial year.
- Increased yield (over previous year) by 1,247 pounds per acre, or about 0.62 Tons.
- Provided on-site fertility in the form of high-quality dung and urine, eliminating the need to haul in compost or other fertilizers. 2
Utilizing UC Cooperative Extension Sample Costs to Produce Organic Wine Grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon) North Coast Region (2005), Mulville calculated the savings per acre in his trial as follows: $112 – hand suckering, $116– weeding, $62 – mowing/disking, $68 – fertilizing, and $33 –irrigation, for a total savings of $391 per acre. Other growers in California, New Zealand and Australia also verified these figures.
The cost of the sheep themselves depends on whether they are rented, borrowed, or purchased. You could buy sheep (and later sell them), run a neighbor’s sheep, or hire someone to custom graze.3 But the sheep must be managed to prevent overgrazing and excessive trampling in the vineyard. Depending on which option you choose, the use of sheep can either bring in additional income, allow you to break even or be an added expense.
When he started the trial in Sonoma he did not expect the water savings, which was the biggest surprise. But with permanent cover you get better infiltration of rain, and less run-off. Trying to mimic nature led to unanticipated benefits.
It is a different kind of farming, a different culture of management, where you are not dealing with machinery but instead with animals. So many farmers are obsessed with machines. Using no-till and keeping the ground covered throughout the year, will require less irrigation, eliminate compaction from tractors and encourage mycorrhizal fungi—which will increase the vines’ access to water and nutrients.
When asked if he worried about getting the nitrogen level right he said that through planned grazing, careful monitoring and good soil health, nitrogen levels should be well balanced. The plan for the vineyard at Paicines Ranch is to use very few additional inputs, but he acknowledges that they may have to use foliar sprays if there are nutrient deficiencies.
Prof. Amelie Gaudin’s lab from UC Davis is going to monitor the vineyard. They will also monitor a nearby conventional vineyard as a control.