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Base Flock: Serving Time At Ft. Leavenworth


Strategic battle planning is nothing new to many people who work in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Jamie Root is one of the folks on this Army post who has developed a plan of attack.

Of course, hers looks a little different than those developed by soldiers sporting camouflage.

Root’s uniform includes red rubber boots and she operates her command center in an old pickup truck. Her subordinates are her sheep. And their targets have names like Johnson grass, woody honeysuckle and ragweed.

Says Jamie Root of her years spent grazing sheep on a military installation: 'There's been a learning curve for me.  But there's been a learning curve for the sheep too.'
Says Jamie Root of her years spent grazing sheep on a military installation: “There’s been a learning curve for me. But there’s been a learning curve for the sheep too.”

Tactical Sheep Operations

The shepherdess from Kansas City, Missouri, has a government contract to provide weed control on the 181-year-old Army post along the bluffs of the Missouri River.

Root recently spread a map of Fort Leavenworth out on her lap, traced her finger along areas that her wooly army has been assigned to patrol and contemplated her strategy.

“We’ll probably do this area early,” she said. “There’s a lot of garlic mustard here. And May is my hottest month for garlic mustard. That’s when it blooms and you want to get in there and get it before that.”

Welcome to one of many tactical lessons Root has learned during the years her sheep have been grazing on Fort Leavenworth. It’s an opportunity she learned of by chance.

The shepherdess was moving her sheep between rental land—temporarily grazing them in Edwardsville, Kansas—when they caught the attention of Fort Leavenworth’s natural resource manager.

“He pulled off the highway and wanted to buy some wool…,” Root said. “And he started telling me about this deal here.”

Fort Leavenworth conducted limited “flash-grazing” projects from 2002 to 2007 and began the current comprehensive grazing contract in October 2007, according to Tisha Johnson with Fort Leavenworth’s Office of Public Information.

Grazing on military posts is not without precedent.

For instance, Johnson said in an e-mail that Fort Carson, Colorado, has used goats to control certain weeds in its Pinion Canyon Training Area.

Rental Grazing Land

“It’s kind of intriguing and it’s very interesting,” Root affirms, which partly explains why she wanted the Leavenworth gig. “But a whole lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s not easy to find pasture right now.”

The Midwest cattle market is strong, she said. “(Landowners) can rent out pasture for cattle and they’re going to get paid the same as if I rented it. But I’m going to need better fencing,” she said. “So it’s always been kind of a struggle to find a place to rent.”

Root uses about 23 panels of energized netting from Premier One Sheep Supplies, and two chargers, which allow her to fence in two separate areas should the need arise.
Root uses about 23 panels of energized netting from Premier One Sheep Supplies, and two chargers, which allow her to fence in two separate areas should the need arise.

Of course, Root would not be interested in grazing her sheep on Fort Leavenworth if she weren’t being paid for it. Depending on where her sheep go in a given month, she often must provide nutritional supplements. She must haul water from hydrants on the post, sometimes using hoses that the fire department provides.

And she has to be a master of scheduling, allowing her sheep to stay in an area just long enough for the sheep to eat the targeted plants, but not so long that they damage ones that should remain.

During the past five years—in areas on Fort Leavenworth that have been grazed—Johnson grass has been reduced by 25%, garlic mustard by 99%, thistles by 75%, multi-flora roses by 85%, woody honeysuckle by 99%, existing honey locust trees by 30% and Reed’s canary grass by 85%.

That’s according to a statement Root submitted when bidding on her current contract. Her statement also says desirable plants—especially native grasses—have increased.

Outfitting A Weed Patrol

Root provides her own fencing and uses about 23 panels of energized netting and two chargers made by Premier One Sheep Supplies of Washington, Iowa [See Premier's ad on the back cover]. She can roll the fence up and quickly unroll again to secure a new area.

To coax her flock to a new grazing destination, Root sets out a couple of buckets as visual targets.

“The ones in the front are my greedier girls. When they start running everybody else is like, ‘Oh, OK. Here we go,’ ” Root said. “I usually have to jog to keep up with them.”

On occasion, the fence has been taken down by weather or deer running through it. But if there’s enough food, the sheep stay inside anyway, Root said.

Field Maneuvers

And if it’s nearly time to head to a new field when the fence goes down?

“When they are ready to move they will go to the next place and graze there, and wait for me to show up,” Root said. “They don’t feel the need to run up and down the roads or spread out and run amuck. They’re actually, very, very attached to their routine.”

That didn’t happen over night.

“There’s been a learning curve for me. But there’s been a learning curve for the sheep, too,” she said.

Many of the sheep in Root’s current flock have grown up on Leavenworth.

“But the older ewes were not interested at first in the lot containing the plants we were supposed to graze,” Root said. Now, some of her flock are adept at eating even trees.

“The question is always, ‘Are goats better at browsing?’ And I think they are,” Root said. “But sheep are still extremely good at this.”

She said her dairy breeds in particular have elm-snacking down to a science.

“They’ll get that tree under their chest and armpit and they’ll just keep walking it down, bending it down,” she said. “The other sheep come running and start eating from the top of the tree. The one that’s doing the work usually doesn’t get as much to eat.”

The Health Of The Force

Root said her workplace presents some parasite challenges because it’s nearly impossible to know when she is moving from a clean field into a dirty one.

Root, who worked as a vet technician for eight years, conducts frequent fecal egg counts. She has also introduced the Golf Coast Native breed of sheep in an effort to add more parasite resistance into her flock.

“But you can’t get sheep to do everything [all by themselves]. They cannot be extremely productive, and parasite resistant and living on forage,” she said. “All these things are incompatible so you have to keep a very close eye on everybody. The management thing is in the observation.”

The Fort Leavenworth weed-patrol flock includes a mixture of wool and dairy bloodlines.
The Fort Leavenworth weed-patrol flock includes a mixture of wool and dairy bloodlines.

The size of Root’s flock fluctuates but has topped 120 sheep at times. She sells some sheep for meat. She sells wool she doesn’t use for her own projects. And she takes her dairy breeds to a friend’s dairy operation in Weston, Missouri.

Root’s flock lambs every spring in the place on post where the sheep have spent the winter. That can present some unique challenges when grazing season kicks in afterwards, during March.

“The problem is, if the ewes start moving and the lambs lose track of their mothers, they go back to the last place they saw her—which could be the last field,” Root said.

Sometimes she is able to drive them out.

“But if they’re very stubborn, I’ve learned that I’m not going to win,” she said. “So I close that fence up and leave them there overnight. And the next morning they’re much more pliable. They’ve decided their moms aren’t coming back and will move with me to the next field.”

Doing Business With The Army

Root said the contract bidding process for post weed control was quite clear about the fact that if Fort Leavenworth is locked down in case of an emergency, the flock’s owner won’t be getting in.

However, Root said a lockdown wouldn’t likely last long. And she said she could make contact with somebody who was allowed onto the post to check on her flock.

Root’s advice for anyone interested in checking whether a military installation near them might be offering a similar contract is to first take a class from one of the Department of Defense’s Procurement Technical Assistance Centers.

A breakdown of those centers by state can be found at the website www.dla.mil/db/procurem.htm.

Root also suggests not being shocked at the liability clauses in a government contract. She described one on-post attorney’s interpretation of hers as follows: “If your sheep get out and run down to the airfield and leap into a jet engine and ruin that jet engine, you have to pay for it…. If our people intentionally let the sheep out and the sheep get killed, we’re not liable.”

Root said she’s come to terms with that idea.

“That’s the way it is with the government. That’s just part of doing business with them,” she said. “I’m not worried about it because the sheep have more sense than to run into a jet engine.”

Root did buy a general liability policy. It might pay for a few airplane parts, she joked.

There are, of course, pluses to being in a military environment, she said.

“I rely heavily on the MPs (military police),” she said. “They do keep an eye on things. And if they see anybody messing with the sheep they will stop.”

“I have had some equipment go missing,” she added. “But if the MPs weren’t here, I might have some animals go missing, too.”

Additional advice from Root includes looking for military bid-seekers with experience in contract grazing. “If they’ve already done something like this it helps,” she said.

“There really isn’t anything (in the way of grazing research) for this Midwest area because we have so much more land that’s been tamed down by farming,” she said.

You are much more likely to find folks familiar with the concept in the west or south where there is more concern over large areas of invasive plants, she said.

Other Details

Of course, Fort Leavenworth offers, in some ways, a unique pocket of familiarity.

“A lot of people here have been stationed overseas and have seen sheep used (for weed control) in Europe,” Root said. “Some of them, coming back from the Middle East, stop to tell me about watching the sheep and the shepherds over there. In fact, some of them who have been stationed in Turkey actually recognize my guardian dogs.”

She has two guardian dogs—litter mates that are part Anatolian (a Turkish breed) and part Pyrenees.

Root decided on dogs after a bad springtime experience, during which she lost about 15 lambs to predators.

“After the coyotes had about two years, they got used to this fence and started crossing it,” she said.

The dogs have helped, she added. So has the fact that her sheep are often on the move between March and October. That limits predators’ time to plan an attack, she said.

Root said the area that made her the most nervous has actually not turned out to be an issue.

“Oddly enough, when I go down in the airfield area, I haven’t had any predator problems,” she said. “I think it’s because there are so many rabbits over there that the coyotes sort of stumble over them before they can get to the sheep.”

When it comes to predator protection, she said, dogs work better than some other animals when the flock is in transit.

Checking on sheep near the end of their year's first grazing (former U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in background) Root gears up to move her flock through a succession of paddock areas, including former prison farm fields.
Checking on sheep near the end of their year’s first grazing (former U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in background) Root gears up to move her flock through a succession of paddock areas, including former prison farm fields.

“When you are moving sheep around, llamas don’t always go with you,” she said. “In fact, my alpaca (which Root no longer owns) would stay behind and roll in the dirt. He would not go in the field until he was the very last one. They’re a lot more cautious.”

Dealing with frequent scenery changes is part of life for Root’s flock.

One week the sheep are moving along a narrow passage next to railroad tracks and down the hill from a brand new multi-million-dollar Lewis and Clark Center—home to the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. The next week the sheep might be sleeping on land that once housed a hog operation. Many of the fields Root moves through were part of a prison farm.

The United States Disciplinary Barracks was built in 1874—back when it was called the United States Military Prison. The old prison is no longer in use as it was replaced in 2003 with a more modern facility on Fort Leavenworth.

Root said she knows she is not the first sheep owner that the post’s natural resource manager had approached.

“But if they already had their sheep on their own land they weren’t interested in doing this because it’s too much work,” she said.

“You know, though, there is a lot of potential there for somebody who wants to expand but doesn’t have enough land,” she added. “They could do this seasonally.”?





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