Considerations for Beef Producers When Adding Small Ruminants to Their Operation

Considerations for Beef Producers When Adding Small Ruminants to Their Operation

Ewes on rangeland
Forage utilization is improved when you graze multiple species. Photo credit Troy Walz.

Beef producers may need to consider several items before adding small ruminants to their operation. Producers adding small ruminants to their operation have found that they could follow an old recommendation of adding a ewe or doe per cow without adjusting their stocking rate while improving their pasture utilization by 10-20%. Below are considerations when adding sheep or goats to a beef operation.

Why would I consider adding a small ruminant to my operation?

  • Increased Grazing Capacity, Forage Utilization & Vegetation Control: Forage utilization is improved when you graze multiple species. Different species have different grazing preferences allowing better utilization of not only the grasses, but forbs as well.
  • Weed Control: Sheep and goats have been found to control noxious weeds such as spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, various thistles, and other invaders.
  • Co-Grazing: A gross but true fact is that most species will not graze around their own dung, but they will graze around the dung of other species.
  • Increased Stocking Densities: If you have a limited amount of space – one of the biggest advantages is multi-species.
  • Improved Parasite Management: Internal parasites of cattle cannot survive in sheep or goats nor can parasites from sheep or goats survive in cattle. With the parasite life cycle broken, producers have an additional tool to manage parasites. In many cases, grazing multiple species together can reduce parasite loads in the soil. You just need to be particular about which species you graze together.
  • More Profit Potential: Prices for all classes of sheep and goats are at all-time highs allowing for great opportunities for profit potential.

What is the difference in how cattle graze compared to a small ruminant?

  • Foraging behavior of cattle
    • Primary grazers of grass
    • Tend to graze taller grasses that sheep will reject
    • Prefer lower, flatter areas
  • Goat grazing behavior
    • Opportunistic grazers
    • Browsers – prefer woody plants, shrubs, and vines
    • Do not like clover, but will eat it
    • Do not like to graze close to soil surface
  • Foraging behavior of sheep
    • Prefer forbs and broadleaf plants
    • Eat grass and browse
    • Like clover
    • Inclined to graze higher, drier areas
    • Can tolerate slaty compounds
    • Good second grazers
    • Tolerance for tannins and bitter compounds and fewer problems with plant toxicities

What are management aspects I need to be aware of raising small ruminants?

  • General Management:
    • Small ruminants have similarities to beef cattle regarding grazing and feeding forages since they are ruminants. Small ruminants are notably more susceptible to mineral deficiencies and toxicity issues. Greater care during lambing is needed for newborn lambs as they are more susceptible to the environment.
    • Predators can cause the largest loss for a sheep operation during lambing on the range. Guard dogs can be used for range and farm flocks to limit predator loss. (Five Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds, by Nite Guard)
    • Barb wired fences are not a good deterrent for sheep or goats. Producers have successfully used electric fence for sheep. Goats are the hardest species to contain and require woven wire fencing. Large flocks/herds utilize shepherds who monitor and keep the sheep or goats moving throughout the day, and they bed down during the evenings.
    • Seldom does a cattle producer need to trim hooves. Sheep and goats may require hoof trimming to prevent lameness.
    • Goat Production Basics in Nebraska
  • Health:
    • While people have said there is no such thing as a sick sheep, only a dead one, that is not particularly true. Sheep are low on the predator/prey hierarchy and mask their sickness. Careful assessment of health issues is necessary to identify lambs for sickness with respiratory illness.
    • Vaccines for diseases are available for sheep. Depending on the flock history a producer should consult a veterinarian.
    • Products that are labeled for the treatment of infections in small ruminants are limited. Consulting your veterinarian and having a documented client relationship will allow your veterinarian to make off-label recommendations with drugs labeled for beef cattle.
    • The Basics of Vaccinating Sheep and Goats
  •  Nutrition:
    • Sheep Nutrition
      • Higher maintenance requirements, due to their smaller size (weight).
      • Greater reproductive potential requires higher level of nutrition with ewes/does that have multiple births.
    • Depending on stage of pregnancy and lactation sheep and goats can be grazed ahead of cattle but behind when dry and in early gestation.
    • An Ohio State University study showed that goats eliminated 92% of the multiflora rose in one season but took 4 years for total elimination.
  • Things to be careful about with small ruminants:
    • Sheep and especially goats will destroy tree seedlings.
    • Trees with larger diameters often die when goats remove bark.
    • Goats, and especially sheep will eat perennial grasses if there is no other preferred forage available.
  • What is the best breed of sheep or goats to raise?
    • The one that fits your goals and system, matches your resources, and is profitable.
    • Some sheep breeds are known for their wool production if you choose to sell wool.
    • If you are interested in the meat and do not want to shear, then hair sheep breeds may be the better choice.
    • Black face breeds are faster growing and produce carcasses with a higher percentage of red meat yield.
    • Crossbreeding will improve hybrid vigor and help you sell more pounds of lamb and goat.
  • Obstacles to small ruminants:
    • Care and management are different than with cattle.
    • Fences that hold cows will not hold small ruminants.
      • Mitigation to this is to hire a shepherd or add electric fence to your conventional fence.
    • Predators can be a problem.
      • Mitigation to this issue is to use guard animals.
      • Put animals in a corral at night.
    • The biggest obstacle for cattle producers in adding sheep and goats to their operation is the lack of knowledge on how to care for the sheep or goat (small ruminants) and the stigma of raising something other than beef in the beef state.
  • Sheep and Goat Enterprise Budgets for Nebraska Producers
  • For more information on small ruminant management, go to the following website:

Beef producer comments on their experiences raising sheep

“Fencing is an issue that I have dealt with as I transitioned to bringing on small ruminants. I also had to become aware of how to feed sheep and goats differently because of copper toxicity. For predator protection, I use a donkey, three llamas and three guard dogs and practice daily moves. I did learn that I need less space in my corrals for sheep and goats as they do not create as much mud when pen conditions are wet.”

“Since adding sheep to my operation two years ago, my number one challenge is coyotes and predation of sheep flock. We trapped seventy-one coyotes on 3,000 acres of land. Coyotes were picking lambs off during the day, especially if they travel to the outside of flock boundaries. I have learned to move flock slowly, so the three guard dogs have time to clear the territory of predators. It took me a while to get my feeding right during the winter, so I have healthier ewes with more twins and triplets. The hardest thing is that I have more death loss during lambing than I did during calving, 5% to 6% is an average for range herds.”

“I would suggest having a marketing plan before purchasing a sheep herd. Most of mine are marketed to a buyer that goes to the ethnic market at 70 to 90 lbs. Find people that can mentor and network with you about sheep production. I pay someone to help me with the marketing, so I price lambs at the correct market price. I have added 1,000 ewes to my operation without having to add more to the facilities. It has brought in an additional $10, 000 to $14,000 after all the bills are paid, including pasture charges. I feel the sheep eat about 40% of what cows will not eat but eat about 60% of the same forages. I have a herder which has given me greater flexibility when grazing pastures. I find weaning lambs has less sickness problems than when I weaned calves.”

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