Arkansas to Study Mutual Benefits of Sheep and Shade Trees

If there was ever an animal that might appreciate a good shade tree, surely it is the sheep. Soon, researchers in Arkansas 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 more resilient, as well as
“future-proof,” the University of Arkansas has several researchers with the Department of Animal Science establishing shade trees on the research station’s 25-acre grazing pasture north of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus.

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

This fall, he and his fellow researchers are establishing about 20 paddocks, each of which are between one-half acre and an acre. The department received funding for the project through an existing cooperative agreement with USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa.

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

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

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

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 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.

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