Study to assess mutual benefits of sheep, shade trees

University of Arkansas to study benefits to pastures and sheep from shade trees.

November 2, 2020

2 Min Read
U Arkansas sheep pasture trees.jpg
As part of a strategy to make livestock operations overall more resilient, as well as “future-proof” the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Fayetteville Research Station, several researchers with the department of animal science are establishing shade trees on the station’s 25-acre grazing pasture north of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville campus.University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture photo

Researchers with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture will begin conducting research on the effect of shade trees on sheep pastures, investigating how the trees might benefit both the animals and the pastures themselves.

As part of a strategy to make livestock operations overall more resilient as well as to “future-proof” the Division of Agriculture’s Fayetteville (Ark.) Research Station, several researchers with the department of animal science are establishing shade trees on the station’s 25-acre grazing pasture north of the University of Arkansas Fayetteville campus.

Dirk Philipp, associate professor of animal science for the Division of Agriculture, said his department maintains a flock of about 30 sheep for research and public education purposes.

This fall, he and his fellow researchers will be establishing about 20 paddocks, each between a half-acre and one acre. The department received funding for the project through an existing cooperative agreement with the National Laboratory for Agriculture & the Environment in Ames, Iowa, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

Philipp and his team, with the cooperation of the University of Missouri, selected five tree species for the experiment: swamp white oak, sycamore, red mulberry, red maple and bald cypress.

Philipp said the decision to plant the trees was partly to study the effect of shade on the grasses — and the sheep that graze them — while circumventing the need to build expensive structures.

In each paddock, two trees will be planted on either end at defined distances from each other and the fence to maintain open grazing.

“With the establishment of the sheep research paddocks, we needed some kind of shade. Half of the trees have been planted already, while the remaining ones will be planted during the coming weeks,” Philipp explained.

“With likely hotter and drier summers in the future, providing animals with permanent shade is paramount for their health and well-being,” Philipp said. “Long term, we expect a host of other positive side effects and opportunities.”

Those opportunities include possible research on nutrient cycling between pastures and woody species, the study of grazing and resting behavior driven by shade and teaching and extension opportunities on selection of shade tree species and their care, Philipp said.

Trees were also randomized for each paddock to ensure that sheep production data can be obtained statistically without interference from tree size and canopy effects, he said.

Wool for trees

Philipp said another somewhat surprising aspect of the research is looking at the benefit the sheep have on the trees themselves, to include the application of wool as additional mulch around the trees.

“The heavy wool acts as an insulator, keeps moisture in and may even serve as a slowly decomposing nutrient and mineral source,” Philipp said. “This is a good, sustainable use of byproducts, if there’s no immediate market for the wool.”

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