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A special experience with farm animals

On my evening walk through the O’Connell Family Vineyard, I heard baa, baa, baa. I followed the bleating sounds of to the sight of around 800 sheep running through our neighboring vineyard in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. I knew why they were there. The cover crop of brilliant yellow mustard was at its peak throughout Napa Valley, but it had made its contribution to the growing cycle and it was time to mow. The grazing flock of sleep is a natural way to accomplish this. It is a familiar sight in Napa Valley as many vineyard owners practice sustainable farming to assure highest grape quality. But this year, a special experience was in store for me.

At O’Connell family Vineyards, cover crops are a key element in sustainable farming practices link to Blog Cover Crop Magic in the Vineyard to naturally recharge the soil to support a vibrant growing season, beginning with the spring birth of buds cradling tiny precious grape clusters. February and March is the time to mow the cover crop because it can trap the frost of overnight low Napa Valley temperatures and damage tender new buds about to emerge from winter dormant grape vines.

The Purpose of Sheep in Sustainable Farming:

A flock of sheep can be “hired” as a sustainable farming practice to “mow” down the mustard cover crop and incorporate its nutrients via natural fertilizer from the sheep into the soil, wholistically integrating crop and farm animals. The long anticipated moment of budbreak is imminent at the O’Connell Family Vineyard and our neighboring vineyards in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The weather report forecasts low 30 degree temperatures. Time is of the essence to avoid losing a percentage of your newly born grapes before they enter their growing season! The army of sheep will complete their job in 24 hours. Disaster prevented. But the grapes are not the only actors of the springtime renewal drama.

Nature’s schedule for vineyards applies to livestock as well. It is  the time of year for the ewe to give birth. Not only is our O’Connell Family Vineyard renewing, the life around it is as well. When I first experienced the sounds and sights of neighboring lamb flock grazing and bleating, I noticed what I thought was a grey and white rock. Suddenly the rock moved and had 4 wobbly legs- a newborn lamb probably just an hour old or less. Its first steps were to mom for nourishment and to receive her antibodies, critical for newborn survival. Mom was gazing nearby, but diligently returned to check on the newborn for nursing. The ewe recognized her baby’s smell and bleating cry- and bleat the baby did, incessantly!

How does sheep grazing helps both the sheep and the vineyard?

The vineyard’s mustard cover crop provides ideal nourishment for the lambs. It is full of anti-oxidants and the leaves and flowers support producing lots of healthy milk for the hungry, growing baby lambs, plus nourishes mom! I stood there for over an hour mesmerized with this beautiful interaction within the context of the cacophony of 800 munching and bleating lambs and other baby lambs skipping around the vines.  A memorable moment in a Napa Valley vineyard.

Newborn sheep with other new babies flocking nearbyThe O’Connell Family Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley practices sustainable and organic farming. We believe that organic farming best translates the pure flavors from the soil to the grape and ultimately to the O’Connell Family Wines you enjoy in your glass. We are preparing to introduce farm animals into our organic agricultural program. Integrating crop and farm animals will allow us to further reduce our carbon footprint and add nutrients to enrich our compost and soil. Plus, watching baby lambs skipping around is pure joy!


Gabrielle Leonhard O’Connell, Director of Winemaking

O’Connell Family Wines