Elmer, Felix and Dudley are just a few of the new residents at Western Michigan University.

But they aren’t students paying tuition or on scholarship. They don’t live in the dorms. And you won’t find them eating in the cafeteria.

But you will find them eating at the school’s solar garden, owned and operated by us.

Did we mention they are sheep?

While living at the solar garden, they have a job to do in exchange for their stay. They are grazing plant species around the 3,900 solar panels to maintain the 8.5-acre site. The half dozen sheep flock together for several naps throughout the day so they can digest their food and get back to work during the cooler times of the day.

The pilot program was designed to help us learn how effective sheep can be in maintaining the vegetation at future solar sites. It’s also yet another way we are continuing to be flexible in finding additional eco-friendly ways to help carry out our Clean Energy Plan.

“This program is a great opportunity to come together for vegetation management through the use of agricultural resources while supporting climate action and net zero carbon initiatives,” said Lauren Burns, who we contracted with for the pilot program through her business Tending Tilth LLC.

The grass-powered landscapers might be new tenants of the solar garden, but they are making themselves right at home. They walk under the solar arrays, using them as shields on days the sun beats down.

And when Burns calls to them, they turn to her and follow to their next vegetation destination, demonstrating their trust in their shepherd.

And that is fine with her.

“They all have their own personality,” she said as she rattled off names of sheep brushing up against her. “People are always shocked that I know each individual animal. These aren’t just livestock for me…. These are my tools for conservation so each one is super important to me. I get a thrill when they recognize my voice and follow me.”

For Burns it was also an opportunity to come full circle. She graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in biology nearly a decade ago.

After college, she worked as a zookeeper at both Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago before founding her sheep venture.

“I do get attached to them,” said Burns, adding sheep graze from May through October. “A few of these guys will continue to be ‘mascots’ because I’ve become attached.”

The WMU Solar Garden was completed in 2016 and generates up to 1 megawatt of electricity per year. We also have solar gardens at Grand Valley State University and in Cadillac.

Burns looks forward to a future where it’s common to see sheep graze at solar arrays across the country.

“I would love to see all future solar sites being grazed and used for pollinators so they can create biodiverse ecosystems that are sequestering carbon, helping hold groundwater while working together for agriculture and clean energy.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve been involved with using sheep for solar garden grazing.