Mountaintop Sheep Farm | A New Concept for a Historic Tradition - Kentucky Farm Bureau

Mountaintop Sheep Farm | A New Concept for a Historic Tradition

Posted on Sep 18, 2023

Eastern Kentucky project aims to bolster the sheep industry in a region once revered for it.

VICCO, Ky. – Along the Perry, Letcher, and Knott County lines, deep in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, lies a 3,500-acre stretch of public and privately owned land once used as a surface mine that is being transformed into an open-range sheep farm.

This might seem like a new concept in an area known more for coal mining rather than farming. But the history of agriculture in Kentucky and specifically in these East Kentucky mountains tells a different story.

A trip back in time reveals that sheep farming was the tradition and once a major economic driver here, long before coal became king.

Patrick Angel and Lester Brashear, cousins who grew up in this area, are transforming this reclaimed strip mine land into a model program designed to get more people involved in a resurging sheep industry, whether you live in the area or not.

The whole idea behind the project is to take this land and prove an open-range concept in which many different sheep owners can participate. The sheep will graze from spring until fall when the lambs will be sold at a fall sale.

The Southeast Kentucky Sheep Producers Association of which Angel and Brashear are president and vice president, respectively, is leading the way to help gain attention to the project and prove this farming concept, according to Brashear.

 “This is a whole demonstration project and a proof of concept,” he said. “We want to show the world and we want to climb to the top of the highest tree and shout as loud as we can, ‘Put sheep on strip mine land!’.”

Angel, a soil scientist and retired surface mine regulator from the U.S. Department of Interior, Office of Surface Mining, is uniquely familiar with this area having worked in the Appalachian region his entire career.  He said the terrain created by surface mining activities through the years has created an environment well-suited for an open-range type of sheep farming. 

“After about 15 years of surface mining in the area, we have multiple coal centers here, which means that there are different terraces that have been created,” Angel said. “So, with those multiple layers, we have modeled this type of open-range type of sheep farming after similar operations in the Rocky Mountains, or the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, or in the Basque Mountains of Portugal and Spain, where these alpine meadows are being utilized during the growing season.”

After coal companies had finished mining these lands, they would return them to useful purposes, which often included grasslands. In many of these mined areas a forage known as Sericea Lespedeza was planted.

While it is considered an invasive species, science has found it is good for controlling parasites in sheep. Brashear, whose family has farmed this area since 1820, said this particular forage is often called the “poor man’s alfalfa.”

“As long as this plant doesn’t get too tall, the sheep can forage on it and we can cut it as hay,” he said. “Then, when we move the sheep off the mountain during the winter, we have this hay that we can feed.”

Brashear’s grandfather raised sheep on his nearby family farm, something many farm families did before World War II.

“During a time between about 1890 till the Second World War, the state was known all over the country for its Kentucky Spring Lamb,” he said. “And most of the production was in Eastern Kentucky.”

Sheep production began to decline after that, but a resurgence would be welcome news to those living in these mountain areas.

“There's something on the order of three-quarters of a million acres of forage, just like the acres we are using, across Central Appalachia, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, parts of Virginia, and Tennessee,” Angel said. “That’s a huge resource. Three-quarters of a million acres, and that's not a guess. That is from the U.S. Department of Interiors, Office of Surface Mining, bond released data. So, we know it's actually about 735,000 acres, the majority of which is in Eastern Kentucky.”

Angel added that when there are 50,000 acres of forage in a single county that's not being used, it just makes sense to put sheep out on them.

While having sheep on these reclaimed surface mines seems to be the best choice for livestock, and while the forage situation seems to have taken care of itself, the real challenge to this project was how to get water to an area where it would be difficult to haul.

That answer came in a rather simplistic but ingenious way to harvest water.

“Since we have these sloped areas created by the mining of the land itself, we placed heavy plastic on one of the slopes holding it in place by steel pipes,” Brashear said. “When it rains, we are able to funnel the water to the bottom of the plastic to flow into a water tank in a pen where we move the sheep at night.”

Angel said that one inch of rain would put 650 gallons of water in the tank using this system, and no matter where the sheep roam on the farm, they always come back to the water supply.  

Right now, there are about 200 sheep on the farm along with a full-time person being employed to stay there around the clock to keep an eye on things. Two Great Pyrenees dogs help protect the sheep from predators and a Border Collie helps to move them from place to place when needed.  

It is the hope of Angel and Brashear that this type of sheep farming will take hold in the region and more people will become involved.

“There are some misconceptions about raising sheep and lamb meat in general,” Angel said. “These are all hair sheep so there is no wool to shear, and they are raised primarily for their meat. And while lamb can be pricey to buy that doesn’t mean it is expensive to raise them and once people get a taste of this type of lamb, they are usually sold on it.”

Another unique aspect of this project is, you don’t have to live in the area to participate, Angel noted. Utilizing a co-op type of operation, he said you could practically live anywhere and participate.

“This is an ag co-op concept and someone living on Main Street in Downtown Lexington can invest in this open-range grazing on a surface mine in Eastern Kentucky without ever touching them,” he said. “It's kind of like investing in the stock market. One share in the stock would be a sheep that would be worth maybe $200 or $250. And you could buy 10, invest $2,500 in 10 sheep, put them with this gang of sheep that's being run on these open-range surface mines, and at the end of the year, you sell off the lambs and have your profit.”

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