The good, the bad and the toxic

 Before diving into the goat or sheep business, experts recommend producers evaluate their pastures. “I think the first thing they need to do is take a realistic look at what type of forage they have to begin with and make sure their farm is suitable for that livestock,” Elizabeth MacConnell Picking, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist, said.  

Goats prefer brushy, woody plants, whereas sheep like small, soft leafy plants. If the farm’s fields are predominantly grass, then the pastures are more suitable for cattle or sheep. On the other hand, if the land is primarily brushy and overgrown, it would be excellent for goats but not for cattle. 

Best Forages for Sheep and Goats: If sheep have their first choice, they are going to choose forbs. Forbs are broadleaf, flowering plants. Examples of forbs include leafy clovers, annual lespedezas, soft broadleaf plants and wildflowers.  Their second choice is grasses. Sheep will also eat some brushier species if it is at eye level or down. 

Goats prefer the brushy type of plants, such as multiflora rose. They will also eat sericea lespedeza and the leaves off woody plant species. Sometimes they will graze on grass and forbs. 

Sericea lespedeza is a good forage for sheep and goats due to its high tannin content which can naturally help to reduce parasite loads in sheep and goats. 

Forages to Avoid: The forages sheep and goats should avoid are many of the same grasses that can be detrimental to any livestock. Johnsongrass, Sudan, sorghum grass and Sudan-sorghum grass can all be toxic depending on the time of year. The grasses can cause nitrate or prussic acid build up in an animal which can lead to serious health problems including death.

A weed producers should keep an eye out for is perilla mint. 

“It is a very toxic plant,” Picking said. “It does kill animals every year and most of our farmers have perilla mint on their property, especially in the summer.” Perilla mint is most commonly found in wooded areas, shaded areas or in low-lying areas that collect water.

 Grazing Sheep and Goats Together: For the most part, sheep and goats can graze together harmoniously. However, there are some upsides and downsides. On a positive note, sheep and goats prefer different types of forages. 

“They are naturally going to select different forages out of the same pasture,” Picking explained. 

However, grazing the two species side-by-side can be problematic. Sheep have a very low tolerance for copper, whereas goats need adequate copper in their diet. Oftentimes, when running sheep and goats together producers need to give the goats a copper bolus in lieu of them getting copper through their mineral. If goat mineral with copper in it is out for both species to intake, the sheep could be subjected to copper poisoning.  

Additionally, if producers have goats that have horns, producers may have some behavioral problems on their hands. Livestock experts recommend a way to avoid many of the problems associated with keeping sheep and goats in the same pasture is to rotate them through the fields. 

Send the sheep through one pasture, and then the goats or vice-versa. The type of forages on the farm will help producers determine which species to put on which field first.

In addition, livestock specialists recommend rotating pastures to combat parasitic infections in sheep and goats. 

“When it comes to forages and managing pastures for sheep and goats, I think one of the best things people can do is rotate their animals and give those pastures rest and that can help tremendously with the parasite problem we often see with sheep and goats,” Picking shared.


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