Mendota may become the first city in the Valley to use sheep or goats for grass trimming and weed control.
Using sheep and goats as replacements for mowers and herbicides is a growing trend across California, said Rob Rutherford, an animal sciences professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and one of the foremost authorities on targeted grazing in the United States.
"We think of them as a living weed whacker," Rutherford said. "If the grazing is done correctly, we mimic the elk and antelope who were out there before we were here."
The cities of San Luis Obispo and Rocklin, east of Sacramento, have used sheep and goats for grazing to cut down weeds and grasses.
But in Mendota, there's a catch: the city prohibits grazing animals. City animal control officers frequently deal with livestock and fowl complaints in the city's residential areas, council members say.
So the city is revising its rules to maintain the ban on livestock in residential and business districts, but to allow sheep to graze on large swaths of city land zoned for public facilities, said Bryce Atkins, the city's director of support operations.
He said the city is considering using sheep at its airport and sewage treatment plant, which have large open areas. The goal of the grazing plan is to reduce dust, pollution, herbicide use and fire danger -- and maybe save the city money, Atkins said.
If the City Council gives the OK, sheep or goats could begin grazing on city property by the end of May, he said. The City Council has scheduled a public hearing and vote for April 26.
Sheep already have been used for weed control elsewhere in the county. Fresno County has used sheep at landfills, and a sheep owner paid the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District to graze his animals in an 87-acre fenced flood basin north of Clovis, said Jerry Lakeman, the district engineer.
"They do knock down grass and it reduces maintenance costs," he said.
The downside? One or two sheep were killed after dogs got inside the basin, Lakeman said.
Also, "there were sheep droppings, but they biodegrade over time so that didn't seem to be a problem."
A Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, study found that sheep make efficient grazers on land that contains solar panels. Sheep keep their heads down while they eat and may bump into solar equipment, but they are less likely to jump on solar panels or eat through wires than goats, Rutherford said.
Mendota city officials thought sheep grazing sounded like a good idea when it was pitched by managers of a Mendota solar plant.
Jake Rudisill, vice president of operations for Meridian Energy USA, which operates the CalRENEW-1 solar plant in Mendota, said he doesn't expect grazing will be cheaper than using herbicides, which already have been applied to kill weeds on the solar plant property this year.
But cost is not the only consideration, Rudisill said.
"We prefer [sheep] because we are an environmentally oriented company," he said.
He said the company will contract with a sheep owner who will move the animals, fence the land and possibly keep a shepherd on the property 24 hours a day, starting next year.
There are other benefits. Not using machines to clear weeds will reduce the chance for fires that equipment can spark, fire officials say.
And in contrast with mechanical cutting, sheep and goats do not cut grass and weeds down to ground level. A couple of inches of grass and weeds will keep the land cooler in the summer and warmer other times while helping the soil retain water. That gives native grasses, plants and animals a chance to thrive, Rutherford said.