By 2030, 50% of the electricity in Maryland will need to come from renewable sources, such as solar. Other states have similar mandates. Solar panels capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. The panels can be mounted on rooftops or ground-mounted, which is common for larger systems. One of the biggest criticisms of solar is the loss of farmland or other valued lands. Another complaint is how the vegetation under and around the panels is maintained, usually with mowing and spraying, which seems contradictory to clean energy. Still others do not like how the arrays disrupt rural landscapes. The obvious solution is to combine solar with agricultural production — called agrovoltaics. While solar may eventually be compatible with many more types of agriculture, sheep are currently the favored enterprise. Sheep are economical and eco-friendly lawn mowers and weed eaters. They fit under the panels. They don’t block sunshine. They don’t usually damage the infrastructure. The panels provide shade and shelter. Solar sites are usually enclosed in chain-link fences, which keeps predators out, so there’s usually no need for livestock guardians. Watering needs to be considered when the sites are prepared for grazing. Portable fencing can be used for rotational grazing.
It’s not uncommon for solar companies to pay landscapers “big bucks” to maintain solar sites. Sheep are a better option — less expensive, more eco-friendly and more socially acceptable. Solar offers sheep producers a way to add value to their enterprises. The income from grazing solar sites would be in addition to the income derived from the sale of lambs and other products, as well as the value of the forage. In fact, with solar grazing income, it might be possible to justify just raising sheep for grazing.
It’s important that solar site developers plant the right kind of vegetation under and around the panels. Pasture mixes which are suitable for sheep grazing and beneficial for the environment, such as pollinator-friendly plants, are needed. A seed company has already developed a seed mixture (Fuzz & Buzz) suitable for grazing at solar sites. There need to be amenities such as on-site wells and power outlets to reduce investment costs for sheep farmers. Multi-year contracts are necessary to encourage investments in sheep production.
My last column discussed using obsolete poultry houses to raise sheep. What if we combined use of the poultry houses with solar projects? Have the ewes lamb in the poultry houses. After weaning, move them to the solar sites for grazing. Sell the lambs at weaning or finish them in the poultry houses. If pasture is of high quality and internal parasites can be sufficiently controlled, it would be possible to finish lambs at solar sites — solar lamb!
To learn more about solar grazing, visit the website of the American Solar Grazing Association at solargrazing.org
Susan Schoenian is a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.