In upstate New York, Lexie Hain and Lewis Fox are growing an interesting business, capitalizing on the state’s push for the use of renewable energies.
Hain and Fox are partners in Agrivoltaic Solutions LLC, a group of small to mid-size sheep farmers offering to keep solar farms working at optimal performance through grazing; they are also founding members of the American Solar Grazing Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes grazing sheep on solar installations as a service in vegetation maintenance.
“Solar grazing is a new topic and a field with potential for farmers,” Hain said during a May 6 webinar about the subject.
The webinar was hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust and attended virtually by 40 to 50 people from across the country, many of them sheep producers with an interest in contract solar grazing.
Solar farms are expanding in size and number nationwide, with two solar projects recently approved by the Public Service Commission in Wisconsin: Badger Hollow Solar Farm in Iowa County and Two Creek Solar Project in Manitowoc and Kewaunee counties.
Every solar farm needs vegetation management; excessive shading from plants around the panels can interfere with the equipment.
According to Hain, sheep are incredibly effective at controlling the vegetation growing around the panels, situating themselves right under the panels efficiently to reach spots where humans could struggle reaching with a mower, weed trimmer herbicides. Using sheep to control vegetation on solar farms also keeps the land in agricultural use, can provide good publicity for solar companies and typically reduces the maintenance expenses for solar companies.
“We feel like sheep will do the best job at a solar site because they are complete grazers and get into the structures of the site, especially under the panels,” Fox said.
Sheep can also manage vegetation on uneven, steep or rocky sites where mowers could be damaged or not even be used at all. Dust and rocks thrown up from mowers also present a risk of damage to the fragile panels — something that is eliminated with the use of sheep.
Even though Hain and Fox have heard concerns about the sheep rubbing up on the panels or chewing on wires and other components, “we don’t see that behavior in sheep,” Fox said. “They’re usually just interested in eating.”
Both sheep farmers use hair sheep to graze the solar farms they have under contract, but they advised that any breed of sheep can be used.
“Just do your research and pick one that works for you,” Hain said.
Lambing is something they also think about, shifting their lambing plan to complement their solar grazing operation. Both lamb in the winter now as they prefer dry ewes on their solar sites.
They also strongly discourage the use of other animals such as goats or cows as solar grazers; goats tend to explore their world with their mouths and do too much climbing. and cows are a bit too big, unless there is adequate space for them to move around amongst the solar panels.
Farmers interested in solar grazing should also consider how much they will charge for the service and what exactly to include in the contract.
“Be sure to charge,” Hain said. “This is an opportunity and there are real costs involved.”
“Don’t do this for free,” Fox added. “It’s a service and not just free pasture. Look at it more as a service in vegetation management.”
In a recent Cornell University study, sheep farmers in the eastern U.S. charged on average between $350 to $550 per acre in their contracts. It is cost competitive with mechanical mowing, which may only cover the alleys of the solar array, while the sheep can effectively manage the entire site. It’s why solar developers are now considering the use of sheep as opposed to a mowing contract.
Fox said travel and time are his biggest costs, adding them into the equation when determining how much his bid will be to a solar company for grazing.
Farmers will also have to consider whether they bring the sheep to the site at the beginning of the grazing season and leave them there until the season ends in October or bring them on certain dates to manage the site as targeted grazing. This can determine how they charge for site management, whether it’s per ewe per day or per acre per year.
A sample solar grazing contract can be found at www.solargrazing.org/farmer-resources, created as a tool for farmers after reviewing 10 solar grazing contracts.
At the site, Hain and Fox recommended inspecting the perimeter fencing installed by the solar companies under federal regulation. Make sure the fencing goes to the ground and there are no holes or gaps through which the sheep can escape.
Farmers may also want to consider how they’ll collect the sheep at the end of the season; farmers will also want to find a trailer to haul the sheep to and from the site, with the stipulation that they may also need to bring water to the site. Some find trailer training for the sheep helpful too, Hain said.
When on site, Hain and Fox have to wear hard hats, safety glasses, a safety vest, long pants and boots; they also recognize they aren’t the only people who will be on the site as they check on their sheep a few times each week during the grazing season. Hain offers trainings on sheep to contractors and workers, adding that they appreciate the educational piece. She also recommended getting some signs made to post around the solar site, especially signs warning people coming and going to make sure all gates are closed.
Every solar company is different with their regulations when it comes to insurance, but it’s always a good idea to have documentation of proof of insurance. Hain explained how she has commercial liability coverage for grazing and auto, available upon request from the solar company.
If you’re a farmer interested in solar grazing, Hain and Fox recommended checking local newspapers to see who’s developing a site and where. The earlier a farmer contacts and connects with the lead person on the solar project, the easier it often it is advise on seed mix choices and other decisions that could impact the solar grazing operation.
For more information on solar grazing, visit www.solargrazing.org.