By: Carin Tunney

Sheep mostly take the spotlight at night. After all, they’re the animal abacus of bedtime tossing and turning.

But instead of counting sheep to catch Z’s, Katie Ockert’s sheep help catch rays. Her sheep are one of the first herds in Michigan used for solar grazing. It’s a dual-use strategy that proves agriculture can coexist with clean energy. It turns out sheep are “wooly” good at it.

Dual-use solar projects can help sheep producers save money on feed and free their land to grow crops during summer.

Ockert’s sheep nibble on grasses at a 7-acre solar site in Ionia County at the Green Meadow Organics facility owned by Herbruck’s.

“Sheep are not productive in the summer months, so it’s a period of time that they cost money to feed and care for,” Ockert said. “This partnership allowed my flock to be productive in another way outside of the typical lamb-production cycle. Grazing them at the site was another innovative income opportunity.”

The collaboration also benefits Herbruck’s because the grass-powered woolen mowers keep the vegetation trimmed around the solar site’s 15 rows of panels.

Ockert still preforms daily chores like watering the sheep and monitoring their grazing and breeding. The sheep return home in fall.

Sheep are “shearly” the best for solar sites, said Charles Gould, who works in energy conservation for Michigan State University Extension. He worked with Herbruck’s to host an open house in September to give the community an up-close look at solar grazing.

“Because sheep are small, you don’t have to raise the solar arrays like if you had a beef cow or something like that,” he said. “You can keep that bottom lip (of the panels) around three feet. Also, sheep are not that fussy … they do a nice job of weed control. They’re also easy to manage.”

Solar grazing sites are best suited for large industrial companies with a sustainable focus. A more common dual-use purpose is planting pollinator habitats.

“Much of the food that we eat depends on pollinating insects,” Gould said. “From a sustainability standpoint, providing a habitat for those insects becomes a critical point in our existence to have the food that we need.”

Solar sites can also be used for native grasses or crops, which absorb carbon and keep it from entering the atmosphere.

Gould is over the moon about new opportunities for agriculture to coincide with renewable energy.

“My passion comes because a lot of people think it’s either solar or agriculture, and I’m saying that is incorrect,” Gould said. “It can be solar and agriculture if you do it right, and I want to build up the agriculture industry. We have a nice sheep industry in the state, so let’s grow it putting solar projects on the ground. Let’s work together on this so that everybody wins.”

Julio Morales, the executive director of strategic customer relations for CMS Energy, develops renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind and battery that can play a significant role in moving businesses toward achieving their sustainability goals.

“Projects like this 2.7-megawatt site are becoming quite popular because they are fast to implement and generate immediate environmental and financial benefits,” he said. “Many companies have established science-based sustainability goals with renewable energy as a key element to meet those goals. Herbruck’s has been a great partner on this project, and CMS Energy is proud to have played a role on their sustainability journey.”

Sustainable businesses, like Herbruck’s, set environmental goals like reducing water and energy use, eliminating waste and lowering carbon emissions through green energy and carbon-offset practices like creating more green space.

“Sustainability is at the forefront of everything we do at Herbruck’s,” said Cody Herbruck, senior manager of operations. “Our core values – People, Planet, Products and Prosperity – serve as a roadmap that guides our business decisions to ensure we treat our birds, our employees, the environment and the communities we call home with respect. Through many sustainable practices and goals, we are proud to represent how the poultry industry can lessen its carbon footprint and grow toward a better future.”