Inside the ARECs: Hair Sheep research in Glade Spring, Va.

The Agricultural Research and Extension Centers are a network of 11 research centers located throughout the state that emphasize the close working relationship between the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Inside the ARECs” highlights the work and accomplishments of these 11 centers and will appear in every Insights.

The Southwest Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center located in Glade Spring, Va., performs research  and outreach in areas as diverse as food-animal production, tobacco management, biofuel production on pasturelands, and Christmas tree production.

Hair Sheep from research center in Glade Spring, Va.

The center operated on leased land until 1947. In 1952 funds appropriated by the General Assembly with support of the Southwest Virginia Agricultural Association, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and the Burley Tobacco Association allowed for the purchase of a 208-acre tract of land in Glade Spring that would become the AREC.

In recent years, the center has recently become one of the primary sites for conducting hair sheep research at Virginia Tech. Hair sheep have emerged as a significant area of interest to researchers and farmers alike because they have proven to thrive on marginal pasturelands, which means farming hair sheep could allow farmers to further maximize profits by utilizing land previously thought to be unproductive. The university has already had successful sales of breeding rams at the center also, and plans to incorporate a pasture-based hair sheep ram testing facility at the AREC are underway.

“Our research with hair sheep not only directly benefits Virginia farmers, but is proving to be of interest nationally,” said AREC Superintendent Lee Wright. “In the last few years, these sheep have grown tremendously in population and popularity throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the U.S. The interesting thing for us is that these regions are not typically parts of the country where sheep production has historically been.”

Recent interest in hair sheep was initially sparked due to some breeds being more adaptable to warmer climates in the mid-Atlantic, their resistance to some parasites, and the fact that they do not need to be shorn, according to Wright. Virginia Tech’s research efforts are attempting to find out just how adaptable, how parasite resistant, and how economically efficient these sheep truly are. Further, the AREC is assisting producers in locating superior genetics for many of the aforementioned traits and to understand how best to incorporate them into their production systems at home.

One last benefit of hair sheep? They act as organic weed-wackers and tend to eat more weeds in many cases than other livestock, allowing farmers to clean up troublesome and hard-to-get-to spots on their land in a sustainable manner.

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