BIFS Field Day: Cover Cropping and Livestock Grazing for Regenerative Viticulture

Kendra Altnow shares the history of the LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards.

On December 5th, the Community Alliance with Family Farms (CAFF) held a field day at the LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyard in Acampo, CA. The surprisingly warm weather attracted a large crowd eager to discuss cover cropping and integrated sheep grazing. 

The event was kicked off with speaker Kendra Altnow, Sustainability Manager for the LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyard. Kendra shared the history of her family’s farm and how they started out growing watermelons and shifted to wine grapes in the 1930’s. She highlighted their commitment to sustainable farming practices, of which include habitat restoration, bird boxes, cover cropping, and recently, integrating sheep into the vineyard for grazing.

A chalkboard that reads "LangeTwins' Project Terra. Why: we have recognized that our land gives us the greatest opportunity to make positive change! What: a collection of initiatives that demonstrate and communicate the positive impact of regenerative agriculture using a systems approach principles. Goal: we are striving to increase biodiversity, build and enrich the soil, improve our watershed."

She explained why she decided to take their sustainability efforts even further with Project Terra:

“I realized that our Vineyard team has gotten so busy that sustainability, yes, it’s something that we do because it’s something that we’ve always done, but we’d gotten to a sustained motion of just doing what we’ve always done for quite a few years. We weren’t doing all these principles in all one location, and I learned from a field day at Burroughs Family Farms [an almond farm in Denair] that the key is stacking these principles. That’s part of what Project Terra is about; it’s highlighting all of these ideas and initiatives that are going to take us further on that sustainability spectrum.-Kendra Altnow

Project Terra is their collection of initiatives that demonstrate and communicate the positive impact of regenerative agriculture using systems approach principles. Kendra continued to expound on Project Terra: 

“I mean, we’ve tried cover crops since 1993 and we’re still doing it, which blows my mind. We’re trialing grazing now which is awesome. We’re starting a pilot vineyard that is going to focus on stacking all those principles on 20 acres of a regenerative vineyard, with the goal to have that grow. It’s not just what’s happening in the working land either, it’s also what’s happening on the side. A key to our program is introducing riparian areas and habitat restoration and conservation work along our slough and so it comes full circle. It’s really that systems approach.” -Kendra Altnow

We also heard from Maria Zumkeller (LangeTwins Technical Vineyard Manager) and Chris Storm (Pest Control Advisor for the LangeTwins) about the lessons and logistics they learned. They covered benefits to cover cropping including mite management, weed control, and soil health they were able to observe in the vineyard. 

A chalkboard that reads: "Animal integration is an important tool to improve regenerative outcomes... 1. Increase water infiltration rates 2. increase soil organic matte 3. improve plant biomass by reducing/eliminate herbicide use and plant diverse cover crops to cover bare soil 4. help with weed and pest control 5. reduced labor and chemical costs for weed control with fewer herbicide applicants 6. reduced fossil fuel use with fewer machine passes for mowing, tilling, and herbicide application 7. vine and canopy management for trunk suckering, shoot hedging, and leaf removal 8. post-harvest vineyard cleanup of leaves, weeds, and vegetative debris... and the sheep are lovely to see!!"

As the group migrated to another part of the vineyard, attendees were able to see the sheep in action and hear from Ross Mulrooney from Valley Grazing, who partners with the LangeTwins to provide sheep grazing year round. Ross spoke to what makes their partnership work, and the benefits and challenges of incorporating livestock into vineyards: 

“So from my perspective, it’s great to work for people like LangeTwins that have enough ground to maintain a flock of sheep on it year round. It does get difficult if you’re a smaller farmer and you can’t maintain a flock of sheep on your ground year round. You may have to network with some other farmers and figure it out. You know, if you have a vineyard and your neighbor has a walnut orchard, you don’t need sheep in there at the exact same time.” -Ross Mulrooney

Ross and Chris share the many considerations that go into integrating sheep in the vineyard, including trellis height, drip line damage, cover crops and sheep dietary requirements. Chris highlights the way sheep change the conventional way of growing grapes:

“As viticulturists, as farmers, we need to kind of rethink how we treat the weeds in our vineyard. Going into harvest, usually we lay down an herbicide to keep the vineyard clean through the harvest time-period. But from a grazing perspective, you want vegetation in the vineyard when [the sheep] come in in the fall. And so the first time I started bringing grazers into vineyards, they’d say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing here to feed on.’ [I’d say], ‘Look there’s a weed over there and there’s one over there and there’s one over there. Can’t you knock that out?’ They’re like, ‘Come on dude. I’m not gonna graze this. They’ll get through this in 15 minutes.’ So we need to start allowing some vegetation to grow so that there’s something for them to move into in the fall. And that’s just a paradigm mindset change that I think we as permanent crop farmers need to start thinking about.” -Chris Storm

An important part of Project Terra is communicating the benefits and challenges of these regenerative practices through education and outreach: 

“I think the biggest thing here at LangeTwins is to build a repeatable model for this. So we’re trying to let you guys know by documenting everything, like when the sheep are let into the fields, what it looks like before the sheep were in the field, what it looks like after, how big that paddock was, how long the sheep were in there. That’s the information that we’re getting to make this a repeatable model, to where if you’re a farm that has 500 acres we’d be able to tell you exactly how many sheep you can support to get through all your fields, in the right amount of time that works for you, and if you’re a 50 acre farm we’d be able to tell you how many animals you’re going to need to stock to get through and how many you can support year round as well.-Ross Mulrooney

In addition, we heard from Tommy Fenster, a researcher with UC Davis and the Ecdysis Foundation, whose research aims to evaluate environmental and economic benefits of integrating sheep into vineyards. This research is working with vineyards in the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, North Coast, and Northeastern California that have integrated sheep for three or more years. The goal is to measure things like soil quality, vineyard biodiversity, as well as yields, grape quality, input usages, and costs. 

Throughout these talks, Kendra highlighted her desire to expand and layer many different regenerative practices. Though these practices have many benefits, she pointed out that she couldn’t just plug them into their conventional way of farming. She had to consider that integrating sheep required higher trellises, or slough ground to put the sheep in when they interfered with vineyard operations. Planning ahead was key to implementing these practices, though she didn’t have to tackle this alone. Kendra spoke to her partnership with Bonnie Eyestone, Working Lands Conservation Director with Pt. Blue, and how they were able to create a conservation and grazing plan that best suited their operation. 

The event was testament to the lessons that the LangeTwins team had to learn through trial and error. One of those lessons learned was that creating partnerships and sharing knowledge are key to the success of regenerative farming. Luckily, the speakers and attendees at this field day were happy to share tips and stories about their experiences with implementing these practices. These discussions were supported by booths with resources from NRCS, Kamprath Seeds, and Lodi Rules. This Healthy Soils Week event, sponsored by CDFA OPCA’s Biologically Integrated Farming Systems (BIFS) Grant, highlighted the collaborative nature of sustainable food and farming.