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So you want to raise sheep or goats?

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Raising sheep or goats for profit can be a satisfying enterprise. However, there are a number of management skills that each sheep or goat producer should have to be successful. Each livestock enterprise has different resources: land, labor, capital, feed and management. To raise sheep or goats sustainably, you must manage these resources.

In addition to managing resources, new producers must ask themselves “What do I need to get started?” This question involves considerations for the type of animals a producer wishes to raise as well as where to find these animals, how to select them and what equipment will be needed for the operation. Producers also need to consider how they will feed their animals and what healthcare practices they will use to keep the animals healthy. Savvy producers will let markets identify the type of animals they should raise in order to generate a profit. This fact sheet may be used as a guide for those sheep and goat producers getting started in the industry.

What Type of Animals Should I Raise?

The first thing to decide when starting a new sheep or goat enterprise is what type of animals to raise. This decision should directly reflect the markets a producer has available to sell sheep or goats, and consider the resources available on the farm and the producer’s individual goals.

Sheep and goats may be used to produce meat, wool, fiber or milk. The intended products will determine what breeds will be best suited for the operation.

Many producers choose to breed females to produce lambs or kids to sell for breeding stock or market animals. Other producers may prefer to purchase weaned animals, also known as feeders, to raise to market weight.

Producers can start by determining if they wish to raise purebred or commercial stock. A purebred operation typically raises animals of one breed. Often a purebred operation will have all registered animals that can also be sold through purebred sales. A commercial operation may have unregistered purebred animals, or they may have crossbred animals. Crossbred animals have the benefit of hybrid vigor, which is simply the ability of crossbred offspring to increase in productivity over the average of the breeds that were part of the cross. This means that a crossbred lamb or kid could grow faster, or a crossbred female could produce more milk for its offspring.

Selecting a Breed

Each livestock breed has different traits that they are recognized for. Breed associations can provide information on those traits and help you narrow your decision regarding what breed or breeds fit best with your operation.

Sheep breeds are often divided into meat-producing (ram) and wool-producing (ewe) breeds. In addition, some sheep breeds are known as hair sheep because they shed their wool. The more common hair sheep breeds are commonly used for meat production. Sheep also have breeds used for milk production.

Some goat breeds are noted for their meat production, while others are recognized for milk production or fiber production.

While many more breeds exist in the U.S., some of the more common breeds are listed below.

Sheep

Meat sheep: Cheviot, Dorset, Hampshire, Southdown, Suffolk, Tunis

Wool sheep: Border Leicester, Columbia, Corriedale, Cotswold, Lincoln, Merino, Rambouillet

Hair sheep: Dorper, Katahdin

Dairy sheep: Awassi, East Friesian, Lacaune

Goats

Meat goat: Boer, Kiko, Spanish

Dairy goat: Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen, Toggenburg

Fiber goat: Angora, Cashmere

Where Can I Purchase Animals?

Animals can be purchased through several different means. Many sales are held across the country throughout the year and may offer only one breed, a variety of breeds, or even crossbreds for sale. Another option would be to locate reputable breeders and purchase directly from their farm. A wide variety of animals may be available at a local auction barn; however, let the buyer beware. Animals sold through this venue are more likely to have health issues.

Choose breeding males that will complement the outstanding traits in your females and improve their weaknesses. Always use the best ram or buck you can afford to improve the genetics in your flock or herd. The male has a great influence on performance because his offspring could remain in the flock or herd for a number of years.

Be conscious of selecting and keeping good productive females that will produce two lambs or kids per year without assistance and maintain their body condition without becoming overly thin or fat. The goal for the number of lambs or kids born per female may vary depending on available feed resources.

Selection Principles

There are two methods to select livestock: animal performance and visual appraisal. Animals should first be selected on performance and then the higher performing animals should be evaluated visually.

Performance selection principles evaluate measurable traits such as birth weight, weaning weight, postweaning weight, wool or fiber yield and quality or milk yield and quality.

Producers who evaluate growth traits should adjust weaning weights to account for the sex of the lamb or kid, age of the dam and birth and rearing type. Birth type refers to birth as a single, twin or triplet. Rearing type refers to how that lamb or kid was raised: single, twin or triplet.

Progressive sheep and goat producers with registered animals can enroll their flock or herd in the National Sheep Improvement Program to generate estimated breeding values (EBVs) for their animals. These EBVs use genetic linkages to assess genetic merit for growth, carcass, maternal, and wool traits. EBVs allow producers to evaluate animal genetics without environmental influences. Commercial producers can utilize performance data when selecting a new ram or buck. More information on estimated breeding values can be found at the National Sheep Improvement Program website.

Visual animal appraisal evaluates aspects such as structural correctness, muscling, body capacity, and breed character. Evaluating structural correctness allows producers to identify animals with defects that are not apparent through performance evaluation.

Purebred producers who raise registered stock should become familiar with breed characteristics associated with the breed they raise, such as ear length and shape; color on the ears, muzzle and feet; hair color on the legs; amount of wool covering on the head, face or legs; and defects that disqualify animals from registration.

Equipment Needs

After the appropriate animals are chosen for the operation, the equipment necessary to maintain those animals must be gathered. Sheep and goat operations need a variety of equipment. Basic equipment includes feeders, water tubs or watering systems, and health care equipment. Larger operations often use equipment for handling sheep or goats.

Feeders should be used to prevent animals from eating off the ground. Well-designed feeders will also prevent animals from wasting feed by spilling it onto the ground. When sheep or goats forage for their feed on the ground, they are more likely to develop health problems, particularly those associated with parasite infections.

Many different sizes and styles of feeders are available for sheep and goats. Some feeders can accommodate feeding both hay and grain, while others may be designed to feed just hay or just grain. Producers should be sure that all animals have access to the feeder if feeding at specified time frames. If animals have free-choice access to the feeders throughout the day, smaller feeders can be used.

Both sheep and goats should have access to a good quality mineral mix formulated for their species. Most producers provide free-choice access in mineral feeders, while others include minerals in a grain mix.

Fenceline-style feeders allow producers access on one side to place feed and grain into the feeder while animals access their feed on the other side. Walk-through feeders allow producers to walk down the middle of the feeder. Grain can be placed in a trough on either or both sides and hay is shared in the central walking area. Producers should be careful not to contaminate feeders with manure-covered footwear.

Larger operations often feed hay in the form of large round or square bales. Many feeders that accommodate these large bales are square and have two opposing sides that slide as the animals consume the bale. This allows the sheep and goats to reach the inner portions of the bale as they consume it.

To learn more, continue reading on the Penn State Extension website – and while you’re there, consider signing up for some of their goat-focused courses!

The above information comes from Penn State Extension, in an article by Melanie Barkley, senior Extension educator, livestock

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