Small ruminant nutrition should differ from cattle, and each other

Sheep and goats are a common sight on farms in the Ozarks.

These small ruminants do well on small farms and homesteads, and many cattle operations also include sheep or goats to utilize forages that the cattle might not. While they fit nicely into multi-species operations, sheep and goats have different nutritional needs than their larger ruminant friends, and producers will want to be aware of that as they plan and manage their feeding programs.


Sheep and goats are frequently raised together on many farms, and while they share some similarities in their diet, it is crucial for producers to remember that sheep do not need as much copper as goats. Too much copper will kill a sheep, where as goats need large amounts in their diet. Sheep thrive on good-quality forage and enjoy grazing on forbs. Before committing to sheep, producers should research breeds. Many breeds of sheep require almost impeccably managed pasture for good production, especially wool breeds. Since pastures in the Ozarks often vary in quality and forage type, and are often mixed with brush and grass, many producers in this area choose to raise Katahdins, a hardy breed of hair sheep that are quite thrifty and can often make use of both brush and grass, even if it is not peak quality. When fresh pasture is not available, good quality legume hay will suffice for sheep’s forage requirements.

If producer’s forage quality is not up to par, feed concentrates can help close the nutritional gap, or simply provide extra calories for pregnant or lactating ewes, lambs being finished for processing, rams getting back into condition after breeding season, or simply to bucket train the sheep, a very useful skill for moving from pasture to pasture, loading onto a trailer, or in the event of an escapee.

Many feed stores or feed mills sell a “complete” sheep feed, which provides all the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients. It is best to go this route and set up an area to feed sheep separately from goats.

It’s very unlikely that the same diet can be fed to sheep and goats without risking a copper toxicity in the sheep or a copper deficiency in the goats, according to the University of Arkansas Animal Science Department. Free choice salt and mineral should be provided to the sheep but be sure to check the copper levels before purchasing.


Most complete goat rations and goat mineral have copper, but producers should also supplement in the form of copper boluses. Goats prefer to eat brush or browse and many producers purchase goats to clear pasture and manage invasive species like multiflora rose.

According to the U of A, goats are natural browsers and have the unique ability to select plants when they are at their most nutritious state. When fresh browse is not available, producers will need to supplement with good quality hay.

Hay varies tremendously in quality, and the only way to know the nutritional content is to have the hay analyzed by a forage testing laboratory. Samples can be taken to the local county Extension office to be sent for analysis. Typical costs range from $10 to $12 per sample, said Brian Freking and Justin McDaniel with the University of Oklahoma Extension. If producers are feeding dairy goats, be prepared to offer high protein feed such as alfalfa hay or pellets for good milk production.

Visiting with a local extension expert can help make sure sheep and goat nutritional needs are met.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here