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Sustainable Agriculture

Improving a System: Sheep, Goat Farmers Explore State of the Rumen

It's easy to see why small-scale farmers or those looking for new enterprises swell the ranks of the rapidly expanding meat goat and sheep industry. “Small ruminant systems offer greater flexibility to diversified small farms, and start-up costs are considerably lower than they are for a cattle operation,” said Joe Tritschler, small ruminant extension specialist at Virginia State University. Moreover, slaughter-age lambs and kids can be raised on the farm, a more profitable venture than selling weaned calves.

So many producers joining a fast-growing industry translates into a learning curve that's as wide as it is steep. Two Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants in Virginia are helping them maneuver the curve without crashing. With a SARE producer grant, Martha Mewbourne organized a hair sheep festival that attracted more than 150 to an event combining workshops on selecting, maintaining, and marketing hair sheep with music, sheep dog demonstrations, and grilled lamb.

“It was such a success that we're having a bigger one this year,” said Mewbourne, adding that so many people want to attend that she's received funding from the Farm Bureau, the Virginia Sheep Industry Board, and others. “Thanks to SARE's confidence in me last year, we've initiated a project that's good for the farmers and the economy.”

One of the topics addressed at the Scott County, VA, fair—“internal parasite management”—garnered particular notice.

“The most serious problem we have encountered, indeed the limiting factor to our profitability, is intestinal worms in our goats,” said Tony Burgess, owner of Holly Oaks Goats in Crewe, VA.

Those intestinal worms are adult nematodes, and fighting them is a protracted battle, Tritschler said. While the lack of effective de-wormers designed specifically for small ruminants is an obstacle, so is not removing treated animals from heavily infected pastures, a practice that can result in re-infection.

Using a Southern SARE on-farm research grant (a new grant program), Tritschler and technician Michaela Dismann are interviewing small ruminant producers about their parasite management programs and collecting fecal samples from their herds to determine which conventional and alternative methods are most effective.

With more than 50 producers interviewed and data collected from about a dozen herds, Tritschler found that parasites have developed resistance to the most popular anthelmintics, and that no “magic bullet” has turned up in the alternative treatments.

“A combination of lower stocking rates and annually rotating small ruminants with cattle, hay, or other crops provides the best environment for keeping nematodes in check,” he said.

Information developed by the project will be used to train producers and extension agents in sustainable parasite control practices.


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