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Sheep graze in a field near the town of Glenmore.

There might not be a more intriguing fusion of the ancient and the futuristic than the concept of targeted grazing.

When it comes to problematic weeds, shrubs and trees, it’s best to nip them in the bud. Or, more accurately, it’s best to nibble. That’s where targeted grazing comes in. It has a litany of potential applications and there may not be a better animal to do it than sheep and goats.

Agriculturists explored this topic during a webinar Monday, Dec. 6, hosted by the Sustainable Farming Association and the Ecological Service Livestock Network.

“Big players in the area have been using livestock like goats to have this huge positive impact on forest ecosystems and I was seeing that all around us in Northfield,” said Arlo Cristofaro-Hark, the proprietor of Cannon Valley Grazers, a vegetation management company in Minnesota. “We both were feeling really inspired by that. We thought, ‘Man what a great example of what a positive impact can look like, what a positive impact livestock have and how that looks very tangible.’”

Targeted grazing is as old as agriculture itself and it features many approaches today. Orchard grazing. Rotational grazing. Forest management. Solar farm grooming. Lawn care. Conservation. Native prairie disturbance restoration. Horticulture waste removal. The list goes on.

By taking a herd of animals — usually goats, sometimes sheep — to localized areas and allowing the livestock to graze, farmers can clear unwanted vegetation with speed and precision. Yet the approach demands relatively little effort or upkeep compared to hands-on methods.

This is a boon for property owners who require these services. Targeted grazing also offers a unique opportunity for people interested in running a targeted grazing company themselves. Like many young agriculturists, Cristofaro-Hark and his wife, Josephine Trople, lacked the start-up money to purchase property and establish a farmstead for themselves.

What Cristofaro-Hark and Trople could afford was a small herd of goats and sheep. By contracting their grazing services out to the community, they were able to turn a profit and form connections with local farm operations, agribusiness, and non-agricultural entities across the area.

As the economy evolves and American landscapes shift, targeted grazing only looks to play a more prevalent and vital role in this new reality. This is key. As farming operations struggle to survive in the modern economy, farmers may have to diversify their revenue streams and do so in new or unorthodox places. In that vein, targeted grazing has been promising.

Cristofaro-Hark and Trople were also able to take part in sustainable agricultural initiatives — everything from cultivating forest ecosystems, to reclaiming lost prairie land, to maintaining ground-level solar arrays.

The latter are sensitive pieces of equipment that sheep are well suited to work around. They walk right under the panels to reach spots where humans could struggle reaching with a mower, weed trimmer, or herbicides. Other grazers, like cows or goats, are too large or have a habit of chewing, rubbing and hopping around. That’s a big problem when sensitive electric equipment is involved.

Breaking into the business of targeted grazing has led to some interesting observations, Cristofaro-Hark said. For one, he’s now a strong proponent of sheep over goats. While the former might not be as driven as goats, sheep are less likely to girdle trees or strip patches. Primitive breeds of sheep have a tendency to act a bit more like goats, so modern strains are preferred.

On the other hand, how a herd behaves can resemble a group personality. Herds acquire preferences and knowledge over time. If they’re inexperienced with a certain type of plant, they may avoid it at first but, given time, will come to devour it with mower-like thoroughness.

That isn’t to say targeted grazing is without flaws. Cristofaro-Hark noted that whether or not a grazing operation is ecologically harmful is a matter of good, ethical practices, or the failure to see them through.

“It’s a grazing practice that determines the positive or negative ecological impact on any environment,” Cristoforo-Hark said. “There’s really no bad sheep. There’s only a bad grazer. You’re thinking about how to meet the needs of space and meet the vegetation management goals. You have to take in a lot of considerations.”

What type of sheep or goat is used is a crucial decision to make. Different breeds have different fleeces. If these fleeces have a tendency to snarl or catch on burrs, that can be problematic. Operations also have to consider aspects of grazing like exposure to the elements, site management, the annual breeding cycle, herd size, herd maintenance, daily water intake, and more.