ELK CREEK, Va. (WFXR) — When it comes to livestock, Virginia is probably better known for hogs and cattle, but the number of sheep being raised in the commonwealth is on the rise. There are an estimated 78-thousand head of sheep on Virginia farms.

That bucks the national trend. The number of sheep being raised across the country has slightly declined in recent year. One contributing factor is that sheep prices are down, right now.

“The market last year was outstanding,” said John Fant, Co-Owner of Summerfield Farm in Grayson County. “This year it’s way down.”

That price fluctuation is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In our case, during the pandemic, the demand for lamb went way up because it was hard to get beef and pork and chicken,” said Fant. “Part of that had to with processing. The price was higher, so lamb was more accessible, so the demand for lamb when up. Now that beef and chicken and pork are more accessible, the demand for lamb has gone down, and a result, the supplies in the freezers are still there.”

Fant has two sheep flocks, one for wool and the other for meat.

John Fant is co-owner of Summerfield Farm near Elk Creek (Photo: George Noleff)

While livestock are what he raises, Fant says in the end, all livestock farmers are really grass farmers.

Why?

Because without quality pasture land, raising cattle and sheep would be impossible. That means monitoring grass conditions and keeping the animals on the move in a system of pasture rotation. While science is involved, experience and instinct are also in play.

“It’s really based on the height of the grass, not the length of time on a chart, and then we move them” said Fant as he gestured towards one of his pastures. “What that does it allows that field that they were just in to have a recovery period. No different than your yard. You mow it on Saturday, you don’t do anything for a week, then you have to mow it again on Saturday. That approach is the approach we use and our livestock are the mowers.”

Sheep at Summerfield Farm (Photo: George Noleff)

In addition to sheep, Fant raises cattle. He says diversity gives him flexibility in farming practices and when it comes time to take animals to market. While he appreciates that flexibility, he says raising sheep is more labor intensive than raising cattle.