Can sheep/goats be raised in total confinement?


Yes. For various reasons, it is becoming increasingly common to raise sheep/goats in confinement (zero grazing). The entire production system can take place inside or females can be pastured after they have weaned their offspring. Most commercial goat dairies utilize confinement. Confinement can be utilized by small and large producers alike. It is a viable option when land is a limited resource and/or where the cost of land is too high to raise livestock. In some places, confinement is necessary to prevent animal theft.

Like any production system, confinement rearing of sheep/goats has pros and cons. The variables of production can be controlled more easily in confinement. You don't have to worry about inclement weather interfering with lambing/kidding or impacting summer gains of lambs/kids. Productivity is usually higher in confinement. Confinement lends itself well to accelerated birthing and year-round production and marketing of lambs/kids.

Internal parasites, the "plague" of small ruminants, are more easily controlled in confinement (zero grazing). In fact, worms are practically eliminated in confinement, since parasites don't survive well in bedding, dirt, or on slatted floors. There is no source of infection or reinfection. Worms alone are reason to consider confinement for at least part of the production cycle.

Another obstacle to sheep/goat production is predation. The risk of predation, even the human kind, is essentially eliminated in confinement. In areas where praedial larceny is a big risk, it is easier to protect animals that are housed. There is no need for livestock guardians or other predator control tactics. You can sleep better at night knowing that your animals are safe from predators. While the hooves of sheep/goats in confinement (in bedded pens) may grow more rapidly, it is usually easier to control hoof diseases in confinement.

There is a misconception that sheep/goats in confinement must be fed concentrate diets. Any diet can be fed to animals in confinement. Forage diets can be fed. In New Zealand, dairy goats are fed green chop or silage. Cut and carry diets are popular in the Caribbean. Silage or haylage is often fed. It is common to feed total mixed rations (TMRs). Confinement lends itself well to automated feeding systems.

Another misconception is that animal welfare is reduced when animals are kept in confinement. The opposite can be true, as animals live in a controlled more comfortable environment and don't suffer the ill effects of parasites, predators, or inconsistent nutrition. However, animals need to be given enough space so that they can express their natural behaviors. Environmental enrichment is a good addition to a confinement system. Some breeds will adapt better to confinement than others. Some breeds should probably not be raised in confinement. Forced exercise may be necessary for males to keep them from getting too fat.

As compared to traditional production systems, confinement systems usually have more overhead, as there is more investment in buildings and equipment. Feed costs are usually higher because you are feeding harvested feedstuffs 24-7. In fact, for confinement rearing to be successful, it is essential to have economic feed sources.

While animals tend to be healthier, diseases can spread more rapidly when animals are in close proximity to each other. Overstocking is a primary cause of disease outbreaks in intensive sheep/goat operations. Parasitic worms are less of a problem in confinement, but coccidia (Eimeria spp.) can be more problematic. Respiratory health is one of the biggest concerns with confinement. Proper ventilation is essential. Sanitation is more important in confinement. Bedding costs will be substantially higher, unless animals are reared on slats. Manure handling and disposal is a big issue. If the confinement unit is big enough (1000 animal units), it will be subject to CAFO regulations.

To raise sheep/goats in confinement, you can build brand new facilities or adapt existing facilities: dairy, swine, or poultry. Sometimes, obsolute poultry houses or abandoned dairy or swine farms can be rented. Housing needs depend upon climate and degree of confinement. More enclosed housing will be needed in cold climates and for lambing/kidding. Hoop structures may be a lower cost alternative. Dry lots can be incorporated into systems to give animals outdoor access and more area for exercise. Combining confinement with solar grazing is another option. Ewes can rear their lambs in confinement, then be moved to solar sites for grazing. Lambs can be sold at weaning or finished in confinement.

Raising sheep/goats in confinement is not better or worse. It is simply an option.


Additional reading

Intensive sheep production (PowerPoint)
Raising and Breeding Sheep in Confinement (Facebook Group)