Growing popularity of sheep farms becoming evident across Virginia
Raising sheep is an expanding farm practice on both ends of Virginia.
Two industry leaders, Dr. Scott Greiner, Virginia Tech Extension specialist, and Mandy Fletcher, president of the Virginia Sheep Producers Association, agree the number of sheep farmers has increased in southwest Virginia and the sheep population has increased in eastern Virginia.
Fletcher pointed out that the changes in the state’s sheep population have occurred over the past few years along with shifts in other segments of agriculture, especially tobacco.
“At the beginning of 2020, the Virginia Sheep Producers Association added another board seat to the Southwest Virginia region due to higher volume of sheep production,” Fletcher said.
This makes three members of the board from the southwest part of the state.
Greiner’s figures from 2007-17 support the shift, with the number of producers in the region was up by 139 percent while numbers of sheep remained stable.
“Much growth in sheep numbers was from the eastern part of the state,” he said.
Fletcher, a Washington County, Va., sheep farmer, said 90 percent of the sheep in the 16 counties she included in the southwest region are hair sheep raised for meat.
“Hair sheep are the fastest growing livestock segment in Southwest Virginia,” she said.
Fletcher cited three reasons for this: hair sheep don’t need shearing, they have good resistance to parasites and good maternal traits.
Fletcher said sheep fit the small farm lifestyle and noted that most in southwest Virginia are part-time farmers with other jobs.
“I personally feel that sheep are easier for women and children to manage,” she added.
Her husband, Dr. Chris Fletcher has 13 years experience with the Washington County Veterinary Service.
She said he has treated very few wool sheep over the years but continues to see his practice with hair sheep grow.
As sheep numbers have increased in the region, two clubs have formed for producers,
The New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club in the eastern part of the region has seen continuous growth in its five years of existence. The Coalfield Sheep Association began in 2017, Fletcher said.
She added the forage-based ram evaluation begun at the Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Glade Spring was an important factor in the region’s sheep industry.
She noted that this program, led by the center’s superintendent, Lee Wright, has played an important role in her family’s flock.
The center schedules its annual sale and educational field day each fall. It is currently set for Sept. 18.
Last year nine local producers took part.
“Remaining stronger than ever, she said, “it is the only program in the U.S. that evaluates rams through a forage-based performance test designed specifically to quantify parasite resistance.”
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