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KY shepherds aim to make use of Appalachian strip-mined land
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

VICCO, Ky. – Free-range sheep herding may seem like an agricultural practice that belongs to an earlier time, but this approach is still successfully used in many parts of the world today, including the Basque Mountains of Portugal, the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and the alpine meadows of the Rockies. And now, you can find sheep freely roaming the landscape in southeast Kentucky.
Members of the Southeast Kentucky Sheep Producers Association (SEKSPA) recently announced a large-scale sheep grazing project on reclaimed mines in the Vicco and Viper areas of Perry County. More than 200 sheep have already been located at this 3,000-plus acre project. Katahdin and Dorper are the predominant breeds in eastern Kentucky. Katahdin is the breed chosen for this project.
SEKSPA President Patrick Angel said sheep used to be a big industry of southeastern Kentucky.
“We want to restore that part of our history, by bringing sheep back into the mountain counties,” Angel said. “It makes a lot of sense to raise sheep on these hillside pastures and bottomland pastures.”
SEKSPA Vice President Lester Brashear hopes it will revitalize the area.
“We got together to start this to prove this concept that sheep could be raised on strip jobs and could help the land, bring more economy back to east Kentucky and be a natural food source for the people here,” Brashear said.
Angel and Brashear, cousins who grew up in the area, say the whole idea behind the project is to prove an open-range concept in which many different sheep owners can participate. The sheep, they say, will graze from spring until fall when the lambs will be sold.
“This is a whole demonstration project and a proof of concept,” Brashear 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 the 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 and other areas, 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 was considered an invasive species, science has found it is good for controlling parasites in sheep. Brashear, whose family has farmed in this area since 1820, said this particular forage is often called the “poor man’s alfalfa.”
“As long as the 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 them.”
Brashear’s grandfather raised sheep on his nearby family farm, something many farm families did before World War II.
Mountaintop Removal mining has resulted in the exploitation of more than 735,000 acres of hay and pasture lands over the years in central Appalachia and Angel and his group are out to prove that large-scale sheep production can be successful in eastern and southeastern Kentucky. The area runs along the Perry, Letcher and Knott County lines.
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 tell a different story. A trip back in time reveals that sheep farming was the tradition and once a major economic driver in these parts long before coal became king.
“During a time between about 1890 until the World War II, the state was known all over the country for its Kentucky Spring Lamb,” he said. “And most of the production was in eastern Kentucky. Today, there’s something on the order of 735,000 acres of forage across Central Appalachia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, parts of Virginia and Tennessee. That’s a huge resource. So, 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.”
The challenge to this project was how to get water to an area where it would be difficult to haul. The two had an 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 steep 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.”
According to Angel, 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.
Angel and Brashear hope this type of sheep farming will take hold in the region and more people will become involved.
“These are all hair sheep so there is no wool to shear, and they are raised primarily for their meat,” Angel said. “And while lamb can be pricey to buy that doesn’t mean it is expensive to raise them. Another unique aspect of this project is that you don’t have to live in the area to participate.”
This project has other benefits, Angel said.
“If we could get more people, younger people interested in agriculture on this land, more of our children might stay and not leave eastern Kentucky,” he said.
In order to get students involved, Angel said they’ve partnered with the UK Extension Service.
“We have given away about 25 bred ewes, female sheep,” he said. “Female sheep that are going to have baby lambs for 4-H students, FFA students and ag class students and it’s a free deal for any kid who wants to learn how to raise sheep and profit from them, too.”
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