When hair sheep began grazing on U.S. pastures in the 1950s, a trend in lamb production began that is now affecting Virginia’s agricultural economy and is the subject of significant outreach from Virginia Cooperative Extension. Associate Professor Scott Greiner and Professor David Notter of Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences are teaching livestock producers in Southwest Virginia about hair sheep--a popular cousin of traditional wool sheep.

“There are basically two advantages to hair sheep,” said Greiner, who is also the sheep and beef specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension. “First, they are natural, easy-to-manage sheep that are adaptable to various production and forage systems. Second, they have a genetic resistance to parasites, particularly intestinal worms that affect other breeds of sheep.”

Greiner and Notter are studying the dissimilarities between hair- and wool-type breeds so Virginia Cooperative Extension can provide livestock producers with more information about the effects on the farm of switching to hair sheep.

Though they are smaller and have slower growth rates, hair sheep require no shearing. A mature wool sheep will produce eight pounds of wool. Because the cost of shearing the animal is nearly the same as the $3 it yields, the producer generates little or no revenue from the wool. This means producers with flocks of hair sheep save valuable time.

Hair sheep are also adaptable to lower-input, forage-based systems such as fields once used for tobacco. According to Greiner, hair sheep provide a viable livestock enterprise for farmers wanting to venture outside of the tobacco business.

Researchers at the Southwest Agricultural Research and Extension Center are working in collaboration with the Scott County Hair Sheep Association to establish hair sheep as a profitable, sustainable system for producers in Southwest Virginia. In addition to parasite resistance and other differences between hair and wool sheep, these researchers are studying consumer acceptance of the meat products derived from hair sheep as well as the public image of the hair sheep industry. “We have found very favorable consumer acceptance of the products derived from hair sheep, and there are only minor differences in the meat products derived from hair sheep and wool sheep,” Greiner said. “There are no substantial differences in terms of taste.”

A marketing agreement between the Scott County association and a grocery store chain already anticipates the production of 10,000 Katahdin hair-sheep lambs each year. Greiner said about 41,000 total wool ewes graze on farms throughout the commonwealth today, with a rising number of ewes with hair coats.

Hair sheep first grazed on U.S. pastures in the 1950s after a picture in a National Geographic magazine of a shorthaired sheep piqued the interest of a U.S. inventor. After researching the curious animals, the inventor imported three West African hair sheep onto his farm in northern Maine. Hoping to use the sheep to graze invasive vegetation around power lines, he bred the sheep for certain traits and quickly developed other ideas for hair sheep. These sheep are now known as Katahdin hair sheep and account for a small--yet growing--portion of lamb production today.

About Virginia Cooperative Extension

Virginia Cooperative Extension brings the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, to the people of the commonwealth. Through a system of on-campus specialists and locally based agents, it delivers education in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community viability, and 4-H youth development. With a network of faculty at two universities, 107 county and city offices, 13 agricultural research and Extension centers, and six 4-H educational centers, Virginia Cooperative Extension provides solutions to the problems facing Virginians today.

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