Grazing on the Job

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grazing on the job with goats and sheep
Photo by Kevin Gomez

Enormous clouds stood out against the spring sky as herders encouraged about 1,200 sheep (and a lone goat) to move from one grazing spot to the next via a suburban street in Elk Grove. The herders had assistance from removable fences, ATVs and Bart, the livestock guard dog.

After being safely moved, the sheep (and that goat) resumed eating, making their way through a green and weedy storm drainage channel. These were Dorper sheep, with efficient metabolisms and a love of grazing. Lambs born in the fall loitered at the rear of the herd. The ewes would frequently trudge to the back and find their babies by sound and smell, then rejoin the herd with their offspring in tow. It was like watching noisy parents picking up their equally noisy kids from day care.

“Our whole way of life has to do with cycles,” said Lee Hazeltine, one of the owners of Integrazers, a grazing management contractor employed by the city of Elk Grove for the past three years. “This is how these little guys are learning.” Hazeltine uses words like cycles and natural and synergy when describing the work his company does. Later, he compared herding to watching a sunset. “It’s a slowing down, connecting us to life, to the earth.”

The cute factor was high; people stopped to admire the animals and take photos while Laura Gunderson, Hazeltine’s partner and co-owner of Intergrazers, swept the sidewalks. On Instagram, the company’s account is filled with bucolic images and captions curated by Gunderson.

The city uses Integrazers sheep (and goats) to get rid of weeds and to reduce the risk from fires. And there are other less visible benefits. This method, according to the city’s website, is better for the air, water, soil, fish and wildlife than conventional vegetation removal. Along with Elk Grove, Integrazers has contracts with Sun City Lincoln Hills, Fairfield, and Placer and Sacramento counties.

Lee Hazeltine
Lee Hazeltine. Photo by Kevin Gomez.

Alex Lepper, the city’s landscape maintenance supervisor, came by to check on the herd’s progress. He said the city’s grazing program, which is in its sixth year, brings Elk Grove back to its rural roots. But it’s also effective; livestock can reach areas people and equipment can’t. Then there’s public perception: People prefer animals to mowers.

Hazeltine, who was wearing a stained hat, had three pens in his pocket and glasses hanging on his shirt, jokingly described himself as a “pioneer, maverick, crazy thinker” and said that “urban interface grazing” is an “emerging industry.” He started using ruminants about 16 years ago after he’d purchased 700 goats in Texas during a “midlife crisis.” Previously, he had used pesticides and other methods for vegetation management and removal, but he prefers a system that employs livestock and is more in sync with the environment. “When we do this well, it is a natural biorhythm,” he said.

One of the biggest issues on Hazeltine’s mind, aside from getting all the grazing work done before the fuels dry out and active fire season starts, is rising wages. Assembly Bill 1066 changed the overtime pay law for agricultural workers, including the company’s nine herders. They move with the herds; they’re on-call 24/7, which potentially means lots of overtime pay, and live in trailers hauled from location to location. Often temporary workers with H-2A visas, they travel here from countries like Peru.

Despite rising costs, Hazeltine believes that using sheep, goats and other livestock is one part of the solution to the state’s wildfire problem. “Fire is not [inherently] good or bad. It’s natural,” he said, but we’re getting our “asses kicked right now.”