Sheep! Saving the planet?

Did you know that with a properly managed rotational grazing practice, infertile land can actually be regenerated by livestock that seemingly destroy it? And, that producers are working with scientists to create carbon farming plans with the goal of producing climate beneficial wool with carbon positive sheep?  Let’s take a look at how some producers, manufacturers, artisans and retailers are shining the spotlight on an unlikely champion for our planet, the sheep.


Carbon is the main component of biological compounds.  Along with the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle, the carbon cycle comprises a sequence of events that are key to making Earth capable of sustaining life.  It is constantly on the move, cycling through the atmosphere, soil, ocean, and all plants and animals, like sheep.  To break it down simply:

Diagram adapted from U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Plants take in the carbon that exists in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  Through the process of photosynthesis, it is then converted to organic carbon.

Plants and soil store the organic carbon, and grazing sheep (and other animals) obtain the energy in organic carbon compounds by consuming the plants.  When the sheep nibbles on the plant, it triggers the plant to release carbon compounds (sugars) in the root zone.  The soil can then sustain smaller creatures such as worms, dung beetles, fungi, and millions of different microorganisms as it grows richer.

The majority of the organic carbon that sheep consume is returned rapidly to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide as the animal breathes, and as decay when it dies.  A very small amount (roughly 10 percent) is converted into methane gas as part of the sheep’s digestive process.

The atmosphere gradually breaks down methane into carbon dioxide, making it available once again to be taken in by plants during photosynthesis, completing the cycle between the soil and the atmosphere.

Additionally, as livestock move across the landscape, they return organic material to the Earth when they defecate, urinate, and crush the foliage under their feet, even further enriching the soil with the matter they leave behind.  At nearly 60 percent carbon, it’s what makes land fertile, and is called “soil organic matter” or SOM.  The more SOM there is in the ground, the healthier and more robust the plant life; healthier plants pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and drive more carbon into the soil.  When the soil absorbs more carbon than it loses, ecologists and policy makers call it “carbon sequestration.”




Photo by Paige Green, courtesy of Fibershed.

Farmers and ranchers worldwide play a key role in influencing the amount of carbon stored in soils and plants.  By properly managing their livestock, they can make a positive contribution to mitigating climate change by increasing the carbon stored in agricultural soils by utilizing rotational or deferred grazing, which is one of the five tenets of carbon sequestration.

According to Jessica A.  Williamson, Ph.D.,  extension forage specialist with the Penn State Extension from her article titled “The Benefits of Managed Grazing Systems”, this involves:

“…moving animals through a series of three or more pastures, in an effort to match the forage availability to the animals’ production needs.

“The rotation schedule will depend on herd size, paddock size, and paddock number.  Managers can rotate livestock through a series of paddocks as forage availability allows, moving them from an area where the animals have completely utilized the available forages and have achieved a desirable residue height – the amount of forage left that has not been grazed.  The desirable residue height for each paddock depends on the fertility of the pasture along with the species of forage within each area.  For example, generally cool-season perennial legumes can be grazed to a lower height than cool-season perennial grasses; however, if they are in a paddock mixed together, the residue height should be maintained to suit the least competitive forage species in the grazing area.  Warm-season annuals will likely have the greatest residue height in a managed grazing system.

“One of the major advantages of a deferred grazing system is the allowance of the land and forages to rest and accumulate growth after they have been defoliated through grazing, without the risk of animals coming back and grazing them again before they have had the opportunity to regrow and replenish nutrient stores.  Because animals are in a smaller area of concentration than in a continuously grazed system, manure is distributed more evenly across the grazing area and carrying capacity is increased as the animals are forced to utilize more of the available forage in a paddock and waste less.  As carrying capacity increases, so does productivity per unit land area.”


A growing movement exists to promote wool as a fashionable, durable, and eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester.  The Wool Carbon Alliance (WCA) out of Australia, a collective of woolgrowers, scientists, and carbon specialists has reviewed the latest research on wool’s role in the natural carbon cycle, from wool growing properties to homes around the globe.

Independent Agricultural Scientist Stephen Wiedemann stated, “Advanced methods of on-farm carbon accounting have shown how woolgrowers can play an important role in the carbon cycle.  Preliminary results suggest where soil carbon sequestration can be achieved, wool production can be carbon neutral.” 

  Advances in methodology in this area have led to considerably lower carbon footprint estimates for wool (by 60 percent to 80 percent). 

“We are finding that the wool fiber production systems, based on renewable grass and natural vegetation, complement current demands to reduce carbon emissions,” announced Martin Oppenheimer, chairman of the WCA.  “Wool is part of the natural cycle of water and carbon that can impact climate in a positive way.”


Climate Beneficial illustration by Andrew Plotsky, courtesy of Fibershed.

Fibershed, an organization that promotes growing and processing fibers near where they can be manufactured into clothing and eventually sold, helps producers develop a “carbon farming” plan.  In a recent article by Adele Peters for Fast Company titled This “Climate Beneficial” Wool Hat Comes From Carbon-Positive Sheep,  Fibershed client and rancher Lani Estill of the Bare Ranch stated “I like to think of the carbon farming and the climate beneficial work that we’re doing now as a change of thought, so instead of doing things normally–obviously, we’re raising sheep the same way that it’s been done for hundreds of years–we also think about the soil and the land when we’re making decisions.”

Recently, popular outdoor clothing and gear brand, The North Face, caught wind of Fibershed’s work and saw a huge opportunity for them to sell climate friendly garments, a key component of the company’s core values.  They learned from life-cycle analyses that most of the environmental impact of its products happens in production and manufacturing, working with the wool was an obvious choice. 

In September 2017, they produced a “climate friendly” beanie touting the use of “climate beneficial wool” sourced from the Bare Ranch.  Not surprisingly, it quickly became its top selling beanie.  They describe their Cali Wool Beanie on their website as follows:

“Warm your dome (not the globe) with our Climate Beneficial wool beanie that was proudly made in the USA.  The premium wool was sourced in partnership with Fibershed from Bare Ranch, which raises sheep using carbon farming practices that not only sequester more carbon dioxide than the ranch emits but also improve soil health.  Bare Ranch’s carbon farming practices are expected to sequester 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.  This amount of sequestered carbon dioxide is equivalent to offsetting the emissions from about 850 passenger vehicles a year.  We believe that a hyper-local, climate-conscious approach to sheep ranching can reshape our relationship with our land.”

Now, Fibershed gets frequent requests from other producers who are interested in a creating a carbon farming plan for their operations.  “They’re saying if we can do this… if we can become more productive while drawing down carbon and [being] more connected to direct markets, it’s three wins for them,” says Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed.

This is just one amazing example on a national level that shows how sheep producers can have a positive impact on our environment as well as their local economies as we decentralize the textile supply chain and keep our fibers closer to home rather than sending them to China.


In 2007, Karen Hostetler and her business partner opened the doors of Mountain Meadow Wool, the largest spinning mill in the west, located at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Buffalo, Wyoming.  Dedicated to supporting local ranchers and raising awareness about ranching culture in the American West.  Mountain Meadow is committed to revitalizing the American wool industry through eco-friendly operations and fair prices for ranchers. 

Mountain Meadow is 100 percent natural, using bio-degradable soaps and non-petroleum spinning oil and they also recycle 50 percent of the water we use through the scouring process.  Mountain Meadow uses environmentally friendly cleaners and vegetable-based spinning oil to maintain the natural beauty of the fiber.  Eco-friendly manufacturing practices help the wool retain its natural lanolin, resulting in luxurious yarns that have a soft and natural connection to the land.  Most importantly, they are currently working with 16 local ranching families for environmental agricultural sustainability and economic opportunity.

We encourage you to check out their website at, or even visit them for a Mill tour! Tours are Monday through Friday beginning at 1 p.m.

The next time you’re on the road in our beautiful state and pass by a field filled with happy, grazing sheep, remember that they have the potential to be the Clark Kent of the agricultural world.  Saving the planet, one skein of wool at a time.


The USDA offers a tool called COMET-Farm that estimates a farm’s carbon footprint.  Farmers can evaluate various land management scenarios to learn which is the best fit.  Check it out at

By: Candice E. Schlautmann for 82801


Carbon cycle. [In Wikipedia] (2018, May 28).

Chua, J. M. (2012, January 19). Wool’s Carbon Footprint Up to 80% Smaller Than Previously Thought.

Peters, A. (2017, November 13). This “Climate Beneficial” Wool Hat Comes from Carbon-Positive Sheep.

Schwartz, J. D. (2018, March 21). Hidden Powers of a Sheep – How Wool can help saving the Environment.

Williamson, J. A., PH.D. (n.d.). The Benefits of Managed Grazing Systems.

Wool research makes carbon headway – – Australian Wool Innovation. [Press Release] (2012, January 12).

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About The Author

Little Designer on the Prairie and OC’s resident “unicorn” design/dev. When I’m not sketching logo concepts, polishing color palettes, or geeking out over all things WordPress, you can find me throwing back copious amounts of coffee while helping on my husband’s family’s cattle ranch just south of town off Highway 50.

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