SACRAMENTO, Calif. — If you drive by the University of California, Davis, you just might come across a herd of sheep grazing right on campus.
The 25 roaming sheep are part of a new research project to determine whether they can successfully cut grass and replace traditional maintenance crews at the university.
Haven Kiers, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Davis, is in charge of running the summer-long experiment and said it’s been a passion project for her.
“This is an idea I’ve wanted to do forever and now that I’m fancy and a researcher, I actually get to do it,” she said.
Kiers has been teaching in UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for the past three years. She’s studying inch by inch how quickly the sheep can chomp the grass and whether their eating habits help with fertilization and pest control.
She said the purpose of the project is to compare the sheep to landscape crews and lawn mowers.
“What’s the labor involved? What’s the cost involved? And is this something that grounds and landscape services of UC Davis could actually adopt to use in sort of less specialized areas,” she added.
Kiers is conducting the experiment by splitting a field on UC Davis’ campus into two sections. One half is going to be mowed conventionally and the other half will be cut and eaten by the sheep.
“We’ll be doing the same thing in the area where the lawn mower is. Right before the lawn mower comes in we’re measuring, and then when it leaves, measuring again,” she explained.
Even though the project only just began on May 5th, Kiers said she’s already seen a difference in the places where the sheep have been hard at work eating everything in sight.
“You can see where the chomps are and you can walk through and you can actually see that it’s more carpet-like, it’s more groomed because the sheep have gone through,” she said.
The sheep belong to the UC Davis campus as part of their animal science program. Over the next few months, the same group of sheep will work on cutting and eating the grass every three weeks for three days at a time.
Kiers said the farm animals can have numerous benefits on the landscape by doing some free weeding and fertilizing.
“We are doing soil samples and so we’re looking at microbes within the soil but also nutrients within the soil to see if they’re actually adding a free fertilizer to the soil,” Kiers noted.
Kiers hopes the sheep not only have a positive impact on the landscape, but also on students’ mental health.
“Looking at the sheep and just watching them graze and that pastoral feel, that can reduce stress and anxiety,” she said.
She’s encouraged that her project will capture more data for science and help develop better solutions for environmentally-friendly landscapes.
“If we can create multi-functional landscapes that actually can be used to get data for science, but then also have an aspect of design and then perform this practical purpose of maintenance. Those are the type of landscapes I want to be a part of,” she said.
While she remains an unbiased researcher, Kiers said she’ll be happy if team sheep beats out the lawn mowers this summer.