Sheep producers are finding new ways to put dollars in their pockets with some help from Virginia Tech’s Southwest Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
The center, located in Glade Spring, is home to the Southwest Virginia Forage-Based Ram Test. The ram test, now in its fifth year, is the only program in the U.S. that evaluates rams through a forage-based performance test designed specifically to quantify growth and parasite resistance. The test provides a mechanism for ram lambs to be evaluated and compared to rams from other flocks in a standardized environment. At the conclusion of the test, the ram lambs that are offered for sale come with a vast body of production data.
“Internal parasites are among the leading health concerns for sheep,” said Scott Greiner, Virginia Cooperative Extension sheep specialist and professor of animal and poultry sciences. “They can pose dramatic economic losses for many producers, especially those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the U.S. where forage-based production is an ideal management system for livestock.”
“The value-added research and data collected on these rams is a huge asset to both seedstock and commercial producers around the country who are making selections for their breeding programs,” said Lee Wright, Southwest Virginia AREC superintendent and ram test manager. “Over the years our research has shown that parasite resistance is a highly heritable trait with genetic variation. Identifying rams that have the potential of passing these favorable genetic traits on to the lambs they sire can make a significant impact on the health and well-being of many producer flocks.”
Chris and Mandy Fletcher of Abingdon, Virginia, know firsthand the value of having this data available on their rams.
The Fletchers purchased their first ram at the inaugural ram test sale in 2012. They have purchased a ram from the test for the past four years, making their selection based on growth and parasite resistance.
“Each year our genetics and parasite resistance have improved. We haven’t had to deworm our ewes in 18 months,” said Chris Fletcher.
As a local veterinarian, Chris Fletcher shares his personal experience with his clients. Nearly 90 percent of his medical calls about sheep are related to parasite issues, and he spends a lot of time stressing the value of parasite control. He says using a ram with increased parasite resistance would easily pay for itself with decreased health costs and flock mortality.
Researchers from Virginia Tech also provide information on a variety on management and nutrition topics to producers during the center’s annual field day and sale each September.
“I wasn’t familiar with raising sheep when we first got started,” said Mandy Fletcher. “The educational program offered as part of the field day and sale has really helped me.”
The Fletchers have consigned rams to the test for the past three years. The annual sale serves as a merchandising outlet for their rams, while their ewes are sold off the farm for seedstock. The rams they consign are progeny of rams they have purchased through the sale.
In 2015 producers from eight states consigned 110 rams, with 36 of the highest-performing rams offered through the sale. The sale averaged $1,222 per head, which surpassed national sale averages from other Katahdin ram sales around the county.
“Our goal for the program has been to demonstrate the tools and application of strategies that can be utilized on-farm for genetic improvement of parasite resistance. The Fletchers are a testimony to the benefits of putting these practices in place, and they are recognizing the benefits on their farm and the farms of their customers,” Greiner said.