What should I feed my sheep/goats?


Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. A sheep/goat's nutritional requirements vary and depend upon its genetics, size (weight), sex, age, stage and level of production, and its environment. In addition, you can meet the nutritional needs of sheep/goats by feeding a variety of feedstuffs.

To simply maintain itself, a sheep/goat needs to eat anywhere from 2 to 4 percent of its body weight in dry feed. Younger and smaller animals usually have higher maintenance requirements, percentage-wise; goats, too. Dairy goats have higher nutrient requirements than meat goats. Breeds with more growth potential have higher nutrient requirements. Unimproved or landrace breeds often have lower nutritional requirements.

Bigger animals need more feed. If a sheep/goat is still growing, it needs more nutrients. If it is breeding, pregnant, or lactating, it requires more nutrients. Females that produce more milk and raise more offspring have higher nutrient requirements. Sheep/goats that are pastured or kept outside have higher nutritional requirements than those that are housed. When it's cold and/or windy, animals need more feed to maintain themselves. Shelter, fleece length and hair coat further affect the need for additional nutrients. Animals that have to travel farther for food and water have higher nutritional requirements. Diseases, such as parasites, also affect nutrient requirements. Nutrient requirements for small ruminants have been determined by the National Resource Council (NRC).

Sheep/goats don't need specific feedstuffs. They require nutrients: energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Energy (TDN) is needed in the largest quantity and is usually the most limiting nutrient. Protein (CP) is more expensive to feed than energy and should not be overfed. By-pass protein can be beneficial. By-pass protein escapes the rumen and is digested further down the digestive tract. Vitamins and minerals are needed in much smaller quanties, usually measured in grams or ounces, but are no less more important. Sheep don't have a dietary need for B vitamins.

Water is the most important nutrient. Lactating females have the highest need for water, since milk is mostly water. Obviously, sheep/goats will drink more water in hot weather. Sheep/goats will drink less water if their feed contains a lot of moisture. For example, sheep/goats grazing succulant pasture won't usually drink much water.

Sheep/goats are ruminants and require a minimum amount of roughage (long stemmed forage) in their diets to maintain healthy rumens. The fiber in bagged feeds is not the same as the fiber in long stemmed roughage (effective fiber). Fewer problems are encountered when sheep/goats consume forage (or mostly forage) diets. In many cases, forage (pasture, browse, hay, silage) is all that a sheep/goat needs to meet its nutritional requirements. Pet sheep/goats and pack wethers should be maintained on all-forage diets.

If/when forage quality or quantity is lacking or insufficient in nutrients, supplements are usually fed. Pasture/range diets are often deficient in energy and/or protein. Young growing lambs/kids are often supplemented with hay or grain to allow them to grow faster. Ewes/does carrying multiple fetuses usually require some grain during late gestation. Ewes/does nursing three or more offspring usually require feed supplementation. Depending on forage quality, ewes/does with twin offspring may require supplementation. Parlor milked females have the highest nutrient requirements of all.

When feeding sheep/goats, the most important thing is to feed a balanced ration. You do this by matching the animals' nutrient requirements with the nutrient composition of the feedstuffs. It's not a percentage of nutrients that sheep/goats require, but an amount. They need to consume so many pounds, kikograms, ounces, or grams of a nutrient per day. Sheep/goats need to eat more of a feedstuff that is lower in nutrients than one that is higher. Sometimes, they cannot consume enough of a lower quality feed to meet their nutritional requirements. This is especially true of high producing animals.

While underfeeding is undesirable, you don't want to exceed an animals' nutrient requirements either. There are consequences to overfeeding and overconditioning. Deficiencies or imbalances in vitamins and minerals can also be problematic. The most most important minerals are salt, calcium, and phosphorus. Sheep/goats crave salt, and it can be used as a carrier for other minerals/vitamins. When feeding males, especially wethers, it is very important that the ratio of calcium to phosphorus (in the whole diet) be at least 2:1; else, the animals are at risk for urinary calculi.

One way to monitor the nutrition of your animals is to do body condition scoring. Body condition scoring is when you feel for fat and muscle on the animal. You can't accurately access body condition score by looking. You need to touch the animals. Body condition scores range from 1 to 5 (with half scores used), with 1 being emaciated, 3 being average, and 5 being obese. Nutrition should be adjusted when body condition scores fall outside the desirable range (2-4; ideally 2.5-3.5). Ewes/does should be in good condition at the time of breeding and lambing/kidding (3-3.5). Growing animals should be weighed regularly to determine if their diet is adequate.

There are several online tools that can help you balance rations for sheep/goats. If you need help balancing rations, contact an expert. Feed is usually the single greatest cost associated with raising sheep/goats, and is the foundation of healthy, productive animals.


Additional resources
Ration balancing software for sheep and goats - Maryland Small Ruminant Page
Montana State University Sheep Ration Program
Langston University Nutrient Requirement Calculators
University of Maryland Sheep and Goat Ration Evaluators (scroll down)
Body condition scoring of sheep - Oregon State University