Hair sheep are a growing trend on Virginia farms
STAUNTON, VA — With professional wool shearers becoming increasingly rare and traditional sheep farmers facing other market challenges, hair sheep have gained traction in Virginia—steering many small ruminant producers in a new direction.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for folks who don’t have a lot of acreage or upfront capital to get started in agriculture,” said Augusta County farmer Morgan Slaven, who manages a small flock of commercial Katahdin—one of the most prominent hair sheep breeds in America.
Most people equate sheep with those that have woolly coats that need annual shearing, but not as many are familiar with sheep that “shed like a dog.” Hair sheep, possessing more hair fibers than woolly fibers, naturally shed their coats and don’t require shearing.
Primarily found in the tropical regions of Africa, South America and the Caribbean, hair sheep breeds possess various traits well-suited for small ruminant production in the U.S.
They are generally equipped to thrive in hot, humid climates; exhibit enhanced tolerance to internal parasites; breed throughout the year; and perform better under accelerated lambing systems than traditional wool breeds, according to Stephan Wildeus, Virginia State University small ruminants research professor and founder of the VSU Sheep Unit.
Wildeus and Dahlia O’Brien, a VSU small ruminant specialist, have been studying hair sheep for about 30 years. Once managing the first Katahdin research flock in Virginia, they now manage two research flocks of Barbados blackbelly and St. Croix landrace breeds at VSU’s Randolph Farm.
“The main emphasis of our work is to create an economically viable production system,” Wildeus explained.
Today, they manage around 70 ewes and their weaned lambs on 15 1-acre pastures. Ewes are separated into sub-flocks, bred four months apart and then raise their lambs on pasture to a target weight of 85 to 90 pounds.
Slaven said most hair sheep farmers in her area utilize pasture lambing, which can reduce feed costs and labor requirements. It also eliminates the need for housing and measures the maternal ability of ewes, which varies by breed.
She anticipates her Katahdin ewes will make “spectacular mothers” and will bond and keep up with their lambs without much assistance—even lambs that are born as twins or triplets.
But a pasture setting also can invite unwanted predators, like coyotes or buzzards. Slaven recently invested in a donkey livestock guardian to watch over her flock.
“I think a lot of people are starting to see that there’s breeds out there that you don’t have to ‘baby’ so much,” she remarked. “Sheep require a little bit more effort in terms of predator control, but if you’re worming less, trimming feet less … then it starts to feel like less effort.”
Hair sheep are raised primarily for their meat—generally milder in flavor compared to traditional sheep meat, which carries a distinctive taste attributed to a higher concentration of lanolin, or natural oil, found in wool sheep.
The VSU Small Ruminant Program offers a wealth of resources for beginners, including workshops, courses and printable materials. Visit ext.vsu.edu/small-ruminants/ for more information.