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Research at the Ranch

Collaborative project could benefit the entire region.

Two of West Texas’ signature farm and ranch products are sheep and cotton. A research collaboration between an Angelo State professor and an ASU alum could lead to one having a major impact on the other.

Reagan Noland, ASU Class of 2011, is an assistant professor and extension agronomist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension facility just across the street from ASU’s Management, Instruction and Research Center, more commonly called the ASU Ranch. He heard from an area farmer who was using sheep to control the weeds in his cotton fields, and decided the idea needed further study.

“It’s a dynamic system that reduces reliance on other inputs like herbicides,” Noland said. “The cost of inputs versus the value of the crops is always the battle. If this works, then you can maintain a high-value crop, and you are also producing sheep that are a marketable commodity.”

“Sheep could be an effective weed management tool that also reduces tillage and reliance on herbicides.”
- Reagan Noland

“Also, current non-herbicide weed management requires frequently tilling the soil just to kill weeds,” he added. “We’re burning diesel and turning the soil over, which exposes it to erosion and loss of stored moisture. The more we plow, the harder we are being on the environment. Sheep could be an effective weed management tool that also reduces tillage and reliance on herbicides.”

To aid him in his research, Noland called on his former mentor, Dr. Cody Scott, a professor and research scientist in the ASU Agriculture Department.

“Cody and I are good friends,” Noland said, “and I’ve always looked for opportunities to collaborate with ASU on projects like this. I’m faculty at Texas A&M, but I’m here in San Angelo and I’m closer to ASU than to counterparts in my department. I have also recruited several students from ASU to work with us at the A&M research center, where they gain experience and potential future employment. So there’s a natural fit for collaboration.”

“The students working on the project are getting valuable hands-on research experience.”
- Dr. Cody Scott

Scott was only too happy to join the project, which is being conducted on plots at the ASU Ranch and supported by a grant from the USDA’s Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

“There’s a real push in the farming and ranching industry to improve soil health, reduce pesticide use and reduce costs,” Scott said. “That’s really the focus of this project: what are alternatives we can use that are environmentally friendly, help promote soil health and are economically more feasible?”

With the aid of both ASU undergraduate and graduate students, Noland and Scott planted several plots of cotton in June 2022, began introducing sheep for weed control in July, and wrapped up the first round of trials in late September.

“While we haven’t completely analyzed the data yet, the sheep were very effective in controlling the weeds,” Scott said. “But it worked better once the cotton grew a bit. When the cotton was small, the sheep tended to eat both the weeds and the cotton. Once the cotton got larger, they would focus on the weeds. So there is real potential that it will work.”

However, the project hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

“Our biggest challenge was that 2022 was one of the driest years on record,” Noland said. “Even though we irrigated, we struggled to keep both our cotton and our weeds growing relative to a normal crop season. We also had deer come into our plots and graze the cotton, as range condition was so poor and native forage was severely lacking.”

“But those effects were uniform, so we still know what the sheep did or didn’t do,” he added. “These issues don’t void our project, but they were challenges that we will need to figure out how to cope with this summer. That’s when we’ll compare current weed management systems, like herbicides and hand weeding, to sheep weeding.”

With initial encouraging results in hand, Noland and Scott are excited to continue their project this summer. Besides the positive impact their research could have for the West Texas farming and ranching industry, ASU agriculture students will continue to reap the benefits, as well.

“Reagan is young, excited, enthusiastic and incredibly bright,” Scott said. “He’s a great mentor to our ASU students. So the students working on the project, both undergraduate and graduate students, he’s a great influence on them, and they are getting valuable hands-on research experience. It’s a great deal for everyone involved.”