Sheep and goats have a unique physiology that makes them particularly well-suited for range conditions in arid climates, although most breeds have adapted well to all regions of the continental U.S. Because of their distinct qualities, sheep and goats can offer many advantages to landowners in the areas of hardiness, range management, and reproductive efficiency, among others. Listed below are some of the benefits of raising sheep and goats discussed in more detail. It is worth considering if these small ruminants can provide value to your land or existing livestock operation.
Most sheep and goats were developed in and for desert areas. They are well-adapted to most environments of the U.S. and are especially suitable for climates of the Southwest where it can be the most difficult to provide high-quality nutritional resources that other livestock species require for maximum production. Even with limited forage in drought-stricken regions, sheep have been known to support themselves and their lambs on the few browse species that continue to grow in the absence of sufficient water. Their ability to maintain performance on limited forage quantity and quality is a benefit that is unmatched by other livestock species. Furthermore, many of the hair sheep breeds tend to resist parasites reducing the need for human intervention and costs associated with treatment.
Because of their small size, sheep and goats mature quickly. They reach puberty sooner and can be bred at an earlier age than other livestock species. It is common for most sheep and goat breeds to birth at least twins, if not triplets or quadruplets, with each pregnancy. Furthermore, a few breeds, particularly hair sheep, can breed year-round and produce two lamb crops within a single year. Their early age at maturity, shorter gestation period, and ability to breed out of season make sheep and goats reproductively efficient offering a quicker return on investment compared to other livestock species.
Potential for multiple revenue streams
There are multiple dual-purpose breeds of sheep and goats that are utilized for both meat and fiber production or meat and milk production. For instance, a single Columbia ewe can produce multiple lambs a year that can be raised for meat production while simultaneously growing a high-quality wool coat that can be sheared for fiber production. This provides potential for multiple sources of revenue from a single animal. Similarly, Nubian goats are widely used for milk production but can also be crossed with Boer goats to produce offspring with desirable carcass characteristics. Multiple revenue streams can help a producer leverage income if either of the commodity markets become unstable.
Healthy food source
Aside from the occasional goat cook-off competitions or special holiday meals, lamb and goat are not a large portion of the diet for most Americans. However, sheep and goats produce meat and milk with excellent nutritional qualities that is desired worldwide and even considered a delicacy in some regions. Goat specifically is one of the healthiest sources of red meat as it is low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Lamb is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, selenium, and niacin. The table below shows the comparative nutrient analysis for lamb and goat against other common protein sources.
|Based on 3 oz cooked meat
|Saturated Fat (g)
Data: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service 2013. USDA National nutrient database for standard reference, release 2016, Nutrient Data Lab.
Brush and weed control
Sheep and goats have a unique feeding behavior that can be especially helpful in grazing undesirable brush and weeds. Furthermore, feces deposited while grazing recycles beneficial nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium back to the soil to help reestablish grasses and increase range productivity. In addition to consuming otherwise unwanted vegetation, goat foraging behavior can result in debarking of woody species, ultimately decreasing their viability. Sheep and goats are even capable of consuming and effectively managing weeds that are known to be poisonous to other livestock species. Finally, their ability to provide extensive brush and weed control make sheep and goats an economical option for decreasing vegetative fuel in wildfire-prone areas.
Ease of handling
Overall size and weight of sheep and goats are less than other livestock species. They can generally be handled, sorted, and restrained easier with less risk of serious injury. This can help provide opportunities for younger children and those less skilled in animal handling to be involved in daily responsibilities and learn about animal husbandry first-hand.
In Texas, sheep and goats can qualify land for an ag valuation offering tax benefits for landowners. Small ruminants make an ideal ag exemption for small acreage due to the lower start-up costs and higher stocking rate compared to larger livestock species. On average, a single goat or sheep has 10 to 20% of the forage demand compared to a 1,000-pound cow, meaning a given pasture can support more sheep or goats than cattle.
Small ruminants are not just beneficial for small landowners. They can also be advantageous for larger operations looking to diversify. Each of the aforementioned benefits of sheep complements those of cattle in addition to the fact that there is no competition for food. Cattle primarily graze taller grasses while sheep will select shorter grasses and forbs, maximizing pasture utilization when grazed simultaneously. Generally, one ewe per cow can be added to a pasture without changing the stocking density. Another option is to rotate cows and sheep on pasture to reduce the risk of cows trampling lambs or injuring ewes. Although management strategies may be quite different on a diversified operation compared to a traditional cattle- or sheep-only enterprise, the potential for increased cash flow and leverage in times of environmental or market instability can be enough to offset any management challenges.
Of course, there are other factors to consider before choosing to bring sheep or goats onto your land. The first being to ensure there is adequate fencing to contain them. Additionally, producers should prepare for basic husbandry responsibilities that small ruminants may require, such as shearing, tail docking, dehorning, and hoof trimming, which includes acquiring the appropriate facilities and supplies to complete such tasks safely. Some producers may also choose to purchase a guard animal for predator control. Finally, special attention should be paid to copper supplementation when grazing sheep alongside cattle or other livestock as copper can be toxic to sheep if not managed appropriately.
Sheep and goats can provide unparalleled advantages for producers and landowners. They have a unique ability to recycle low-quality forages not consumed by other livestock into lean, nutritious protein, high quality milk, and luxurious wool and mohair. This combined with their smaller frame, heat tolerance, and reproductive efficiency make sheep and goats a versatile species capable of suiting the needs of small, “backyard” producers and large operations alike.
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