Considerations for Expanding Your Cattle Operation to Include Sheep or Goats

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Back in March, our NC State Extension Small Ruminant Specialist, Dr. Andrew Weaver shared some very valuable information with our livestock producers centered around Exploring Additional Opportunities for Cattle Operations. He made a bold statement that adding a sheep or goat per cow on an operation would not force a change in stocking rate and then continued through his presentation with research to back up that claim. He also shared some considerations to keep in mind if you are thinking about integrating sheep/goats into your cattle operation. Today I would like to share some of those thoughts and others that I have put together.

sheep in pasture

In the last year or two, we have seen historically high market prices for small ruminants (sheep and goats), which is maybe not the best time to take on a new adventure, as these high market prices in turn also create higher management costs. However, it is still a great time to think about all the possibilities and considerations. According to a study done at Kansas State University nearly half of a small ruminants diet consists of forbes, weeds, and different types of grasses than what cows typically eat. Adding a sheep/goat per cow can result in 10-20% better pasture utilization and grazing capacity due to the fact that 20-30% of a small ruminant’s diet is different than a cows. The parasites that effect cattle are also different than those of sheep and goats so when considering these two thoughts there are a couple of ways that producers could go about co-grazing small ruminants with cattle. Producers can either put small ruminants with cattle in the same pasture or they can do a before/after approach. Meaning when sheep are in early gestation or open and their nutritional needs are lower, they can be grazed after the cattle vs. when their nutritional needs are highest during late gestation and lambing when it would be better to graze them before the cattle. The challenge with either of these options is that fencing for cattle will not hold sheep or goats so the need for predator protection and alternative fencing is a priority. Nonetheless, parasite issues can be improved in each species by co-grazing, even though parasite treatment may very well still be needed especially in small ruminants. Grazing management practices are very important for parasite management.

When thinking about grazing management one of the best places to start is making sure we understand the differences in how each species grazes. Cattle are mainly grass grazers, they typically prefer taller grass that sheep will reject most times, and they prefer it in lower flatter areas. Goats are browsers or opportunistic grazers. Meaning they prefer to pick the higher leaves on a weed that are also higher in nutrition and minerals. They don’t like clovers or grazing as close to the ground. Sheep prefer forbes and broadleaf plants but will eat some grass. Small ruminants in general prefer to graze steeper, inclined areas.

goat laying downShifting gears to general management, there are some significant differences between small ruminants and cattle. Some sort of guard animal is a must for sheep. Either llamas, donkeys, or dogs can be considered. Dogs need to be raised with sheep so they know to protect that particular group and need to be left alone, basically to bond with the flock. Vaccines are slightly different as well, there are very few for sheep there are two particular ones to consider: an overeating vaccine, and a tetanus vaccine especially for animals that need their tails docked or need to be castrated.

If you are thinking of getting your feet wet in the small ruminant world, be sure to think about finding a market before purchasing animals. Prices for sheep and goats are usually higher around ethnic holidays such as Easter and Ramadan. If you would be interested in speaking with someone related to co-grazing small ruminants and cattle you may find out more information by contacting Kendra Fortner at the Jackson County Cooperative Extension Center at 828-586-4009 or by email at If you are located in Swain County there is an existing Swain County 4-H Livestock group you may contact through the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Swain County Center at 828-488-3848.