At September’s Second Annual G.O.A.T. Sheep & Goat Festival at Thee Draper Merc Farms in Pulaski County, there are people vending all kinds of products by, of and for sheep and goats and their fans.
Demonstrations of shearing, hoof trimming, goat milling, yarn spinning and herd dog training abound, as well as a photo booth and a petting zoo.
You can stop to say hello to Cecil King, the president of the New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club, a font of information and generally recognized as a formidable expert in sheep and goat farming and all related subjects. Over the phone, his country accent has an educated precision; in person, he’s obviously strong, used to physical labor and dressed like someone who’s ready to handle livestock.
The main building is laid out like a flea market; there are vendors scattered outside as well, and out front you can buy a lamb burger or other goodies. The meat mostly looks like your basic cafeteria-style patties in terms of shape, texture and appearance – if you couldn’t smell them, you’d think they were beef – but they still have that unmistakably rich, unctuous lamb flavor and a silkier texture than cow.
The main draw, of course, is the tent to the right of the building, where the raisons d’etre of the whole enterprise are displayed in rows of small, adjacent pens. The various breeds of goats and sheep and their respective farms are shown on jauntily lettered signs, many with clipboards detailing breed origins. Some owners sit around the edges, keeping an eye on their charges and nodding politely at onlookers; some are elsewhere.
The breed names of sheep in particular evoke either swashbuckling adventure or teatime in Hobbiton. Icelandic, Texel, Rambouillet, Merino, Columbia, Katahdin, St. Croix, Gulf Coast Native, Romeldale and Cormo comprise the former; Border Leicester, Oxford, Hampshire, Dorset, East Friesian, Dorper, Jacob (which, with four horns curling around their faces, look positively infernal), Teeswater and Shetland, the latter. And then there’s the Babydoll Southdown, which sounds like a notorious gun moll.
Regardless of names, they all have similar slitty, oblong-pupiled eyes, which, along with the upcurled set of their mouths, give them a self-satisfied air. If this is less appealing than the big, brown, trusting eyes of a cow, compare the two animals’ droppings. While the air in the tent has a distinct hircine tang, it doesn’t have the reek of cow dung, surely one of the unspoken advantages of farming sheep over cows.
Wandering about, something else becomes very apparent, particularly at the pens of Border Leicesters (who, it turns out, belong to King). They’re all male and all very gifted in one aspect – their gonads are alarmingly large relative to their body size. An untrained eye might worry that the rams have been the victims of injury, but they seem to be in good spirits.
King explained it thusly: “The reason is, testicular size is very heritable and extraordinarily important. You want to buy a ram that’s testicles are at least 31 centimeters in diameter. Larger testicles make more sperm. Then their female offspring are going to be more fertile as well.”
As someone who used to raise cattle, he said, “I would never have brought a bull home that didn’t have testicles larger than 35 centimeters. And a ram’s testicles aren’t much different in size than a bull’s.”
King’s pleasant voice shaded a bit into amusement. He could clearly understand why it was a potentially absurd topic, and a farmer has to develop a sense of humor to deal with the vagaries of his trade.
But he also answered seriously, because sheep testicles, funny or not, are one of the linchpins of the operation, means through which a profit can be turned. Nothing honest that keeps poverty at bay can be scorned, or treated as shameful.
At least you found out why the sheep looked so smug.
Grayson County is getting a new wool baler
Grayson County is set to make a down payment in late December on a new wool baler, being built by a machinist in Sparta, North Carolina, a small town just over the border.
The search for a new baler and the decision on this one was made jointly between the county and the New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club. The baler will be used by farmers all over the region, who will bring their wool to baling events, which are usually three-day affairs, where everyone can meet and mingle and catch up on news.
The old baler, past its useful life and in disrepair, just got them through the last season this year.
The cost will come in at about $20,000-$22,000; funds secured so far amount to about $30,000; $20,000 from the Virginia Department of Agriculture; $2,500 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission; $5,000 from the Grayson County Economic Development Authority; and $2,500 from Pulaski County.
Leftover funds are expected to go towards a permanent trailer for the baler, maintenance and repairs, and marketing for the wool it processes.
Initially, they looked overseas to China or New Zealand for a new baler, but the cost of having it shipped, plus the cost of shipping it back if it was defective or in need of a fix, was prohibitive to that line of action.
King said they’d found a machine shop in Ohio willing to make one; then more recently, the same business that had been patching and repairing the existing baler offered to build one from scratch.
“This guy’s never made a wool baler, but he’s a metal fabricator and runs a machine shop,” said King, “and one of the considerations we had was, if something goes wrong with this thing, who do we have?”
King continued, “He’s the one who fixed our old wool baler and he’s going to copy that one. He said he could make one that’s as good or better.” The Ohio shop typically makes two to three balers a year, which does speak to a certain expertise.
However, said King, “The problem with that is, we don’t have the local knowledge. We still need to have someone local who can work on our baler. We thought, ‘why not have the person who’s going to work on it actually be the one who makes it?’” Excited to have an option practically in their backyard, the county and the club agreed.
Why the wool baler matters
Why is a baler so important? The short version is that it keeps sheep farmers from losing a percentage of the money they spend on shearing. For Grayson County farmers, selling wool is loss mitigation at best. With a baler, the farmers recoup about 60% of the cost from having their sheep sheared. Without it, they’d only get 10-15% back.
And you can’t let them go unsheared; you’d lose all your profit. They’d die of overheating or fall prey to parasites or one of the innumerable livestock diseases that are the bane of every farmer. Without a baler, it’s more cost effective to have your flock sheared, throw away the wool and hope the meat sales make up for it.
A baler is essentially a simple hydraulic pressing machine that takes fluffy material of great volume, aka wool, and squishes it into a concentrated mass for easier transport and more efficient storage. The force it generates is powerful and evenly distributed, and ensures that more wool can fit on the back of a truck so that more revenue can be generated. The wool is unpacked once it gets to a textile plant and then cleaned, carded, spun and processed.
As an alternative, you can sell wool a fleece at a time to local artisans, but that’s too piecemeal and erratic to make farmers any serious money. Volume is where profit lies.
The number of sheep in Grayson County has doubled
“People have been raising wool here for centuries,” said King. While Grayson County is part of the Twin Counties, formed by itself, Carroll County and the city of Galax, sheep and goat farmers are less interested in maintaining borders and more interested in pitching in.
For instance, the baler will help Grayson, but sheep farmers with wool to bale will come from several counties away to do so, from all over Southwestern Virginia and into North Carolina. Likewise, King, well-trusted, helps negotiate good prices for everyone who comes to bale and send their wool off.
He continued the lesson. “Sheep paid the taxes and bought your years’ worth of groceries. It’s amazing how many people in the ’40s and ’50s had sheep in Pulaski County. They were raised primarily on grass, but sold well enough to pay taxes and buy groceries. It’s their grandkids doing it now. It’s just been handed down from generation to generation.” The same is true in Grayson.
“You can sell more pounds of product per acre than you can cattle,” King said. “Because around here, it’s probably an acre and a half for one mama cow. But you can keep seven mama sheep on that same acre and a half.” Certainly a compelling argument from an economic standpoint.
(King noted as an aside that it’s better to get out of the cattle game, which he was in, after a certain age; you slow down, you’re not as agile, and cattle are enormous relative to humans, whereas sheep and goats are easier to wrangle one-on-one.)
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture ag census statistics available date from 2017 and make comparisons between that year and 2012; and as is often the case, such dry statistics are where the greater story lies.
In Virginia overall, there were 2,646 sheep farms in 2017, up from 2,315 in 2012; but the number of actual head in 2017 was 82,661, lower than the number of head in 2012, a slightly stronger 84,983.
In neither year was Grayson anywhere near the top five counties in Virginia (Augusta, Loudoun, Rockingham, Washington and Scott, respectively); in 2017 it had 49 farms, up four from 45 in 2012. However, it saw a dramatic upswing in the number of head, from a mere 1,863 in 2012 to almost double that amount – 2,748 – in 2017.
For contrast, top contender Augusta County had 171 sheep farms in 2012 and had dropped to 159 in 2017.
Further, 15 Grayson County farms produced 5,095 pounds of wool in 2017, down significantly from 2012’s 6,795 pounds of wool from 25 farms. However, the amount of revenue produced held about steady at $1,000 each year, not per farm, but for the entire county. (Data was rounded to the nearest whole number.)
Grayson County Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Kevin Spurlin, who dug up the data, noted, “If you divide $1,000 by the pounds of wool sold in 2017, the revenue works out to roughly 19.6 cents per pound. Since we started using the baler and combining wool from the region, we’ve been getting about twice as much value for the wool. The first year we did this in 2019, farmers got 43.5 cents per pound.”
He added, “When the new Census of Ag data gets reported for 2022, I will be curious if folks who quit bringing the wool to sell will actually start again because they can get more money from it.” Before, he said, many simply threw it away.
Spurlin knows; as an extension agent, part of his job is meeting and interacting with farmers on a regular basis. He may be based out of an office in Independence, the Grayson County seat, but Spurlin still helps out at baling events.
“If you’re under 40, you see wool in a totally different light.”
But the main profit on Grayson County sheep comes from meat, baler or not. So the formula at all times is to not lose too much on the wool side while maximizing profit on the meat side, and navigating the potentially hostile forces affecting this equation: bad weather, disease, low fertility, equipment malfunction, supply chain issues, transportation problems, market fluctuations and the general cussedness of Murphy’s Law that likes to rear its head at any human endeavor. Like, for instance, being saddled with a broken wool baler.
“The way we’ve been doing wool for 100 years is,” King says, “you put your sheared wool in a wool bag. [The bags are] 8’ tall, 3’ in circumference. You stuff it as full as you can, send it to a middleman, and they have to bale it.” Having it sent out for baling is an additional and burdensome cost.
Before baling, farmers have to pay for someone to shear the sheep, which is a sunk cost already, since the quality of most Grayson County wool is middling. However, you have to have them sheared, because it’s cruelty, not to mention bad animal husbandry, not to.
The one exception is hair sheep. “Their only saved expense is, you don’t have to shear them,” said King. Katahdin is the most common hair sheep in Grayson County, according to him.
King continued, “Some of our people have the right kind of wool to make Smartwool. We sort the wool, and they get paid a real high price for the wool, and they make really good money off of it. They don’t lose money off of it, they get paid what they’re worth, but by baling it, they get much, much more.”
While most Grayson County wool isn’t destined to end up as Smartwool, enterprising souls interested in starting a side business raising sheep should know that the finer sorts of wool are making a big comeback, and currently there’s only one Merino sheep farm in the area, according to King.
“If you’re under 40, you see wool in a totally different light,” said King. “It is so trendy. Like wool shoes are incredible–in a big city, it’s incredible how many people wear wool shoes. It’s just crazy how well wool is selling. Like leggings for women? That’s helping move tons and tons of wool from Merino sheep in Australia and New Zealand.” To hear it described, Merino wool is to clothing what Pima or Egyptian cotton is to linens.
“It all goes back to the microns,” King said. “Everything is measured in microns. Anything less than 20, the farmer gets a lot more money for it. The type of wool most of them [in the area] produce, I hate to say it, but it goes into army blankets and uniforms. Are you familiar with the Berry Act? It says all military items must be made from all American products.”
According to the Department of Commerce’s website, the Berry Amendment, passed in 1941, is a statutory requirement that restricts the Department of Defense from buying food, clothing and various textiles and tools that are not grown, made or processed in the United States. Grayson County’s most common wool sheep types, with micron sizes, are Suffolk (25-33 mm), Tunis (24-31 mm), Hampshire (24-33 mm) and Dorset (26-33 mm).
Compare this to the Merino, at 11.5-26 mm; or its relative the Rambouillet, at 18-24 mm. The problem is that Merinos and Rambouillet require a lot of fussing over while you’re raising and keeping them, or you might spoil the goods.
“Merino grows slowly, and so you’ve really got to have good clean pastures to keep the wool clean,” King says. “You can’t just let them run anywhere. You have to keep them on a higher plane of nutrition, because a good bit of your money is coming from wool.” They can and do provide double value just like their less-refined brethren, too, being sold for meat.
Baler will help farmers recoup some losses
Another problem you can encounter is that your finer wool sheep might be harder to sell as meat, due to their size, he said.
“Rambouillet is too large,” said King. “They’re really a large breed. We sell to New Holland, Pennsylvania in Lancaster County. They buy most of our lambs. They want a lamb between 75-85 pounds.” The bigger size means, obviously, a higher price.
“It’s got to be smaller because of the price,” said King. “If you’re buying one whole lamb for Sunday dinner, wouldn’t you rather spend $350 vs. $500?”
Buying a whole lamb is much more common up north, King said, because many places still have neighborhood butcher shops, offering lamb in wholes, halves, quarters, or chops.
“That’s why we get paid so much more,” he said. Out west, meat sheep are also grown, but they’re less popular at the New Holland market because they’re so big.
“Those get put on a feedlot and get to 150-200 pounds,” he said; it takes 2-2.5 of the Virginia sheep to match the size of western ones. Those relative behemoths get sold to supermarkets.
Ironically, this means that if you live in Southwest Virginia and don’t buy directly from a local sheep farmer or go through a farmers market or co-op, you’re buying lamb at a chain supermarket…which means your lamb was shipped in from out west.
And, obviously in either case, most buyers want lamb, because it’s milder and that’s public preference now. “They’re smaller, they’re younger, and the flavor is milder,” King remarked. “Once it gets its adult teeth in, it gets to having a muttony taste.” He said he’s never actually eaten any of it himself.
Still, some few buyers seek it out.
“Up at that market, that population’s ethnicity is so varied,” King said. “Like there’s a large group of people from North Africa, they only eat mutton. They want nothing to do with lamb. So they’ve got a couple of buyers there to get that, and they pay more for it than we’d get for old stuff here. They know how to cook it right, because it’s a part of their heritage.”
He added, “I wouldn’t want to eat it unless I had an experienced cook, but mutton sausage is growing in popularity from some of the articles I’m reading.”
“The buyers where we sell most of the lamb prefer wool lambs [to hair lambs],” King continued. This, despite the fact that, King says, there’s no discernible difference in taste to him, and not one recorded. He had a friend at the University of Florida – King’s career has led to some unexpected connections – check the research, and no flavor difference has come to light in tests.
The main problem now lies not in taste differences, but inflation.
“On February 1, the average lamb that we sent to New Holland rang up around $275-$350,” said King. (That’s the price per whole lamb. The animals are sent to the market, where they’re purchased live, then taken to slaughterhouses by the buyers.)
“After inflation hit this summer, we’re getting about $150-$180 for the same lamb,” King said, without flinching but with a noticeable tinge of regret in his voice. “We feel like about $1.80 a pound and above makes it profitable.”
But before the meat comes the wool, and the baler needs to be ready in time for shearing in the spring, which hopefully it will be. Spurlin said that at least it’s a good thing to have.
“Certainly, I don’t think in and of itself the wool baler is going to make it more attractive to have sheep in our area,” he said, adding, “We are getting more sheep in our area. Some of those are hair sheep, which we don’t have to shear, and a wool baler won’t matter for those folks. But we are growing in the number of sheep in our area. So [the baler] is certainly providing a greater opportunity for those who are looking to get into it and recoup some of those costs instead of taking that hit for shearing.”