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Ask Martok: Keeping Sheep Versus Goats

Martok navigates six considerations for goat and sheep keepers who have physical limitations.

Martok, with Sue Weaver

Sheep and goats
Courtesy Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock
When choosing whether to keep sheep or goats, think about things like ease of handling, fencing needs and shearing requirements.

Q: I have physical limitations and am trying to decide whether to keep sheep or goats on my farm. Because your farm has so many different animals, could you ask your mom which she would choose if she were in my situation?

A: Mom thought and thought, and finally, she said, "It depends." It depends on your limitations, the kind of handling facilities you have, and the time and effort you plan to invest in your animals. Here are some things to consider before choosing sheep or goats.

Ask Martok

1. Fencing
Goats are harder (Mom says much harder) to fence than sheep. We goats are adventurers! If we find a weak place in the fence, we exploit it. We like to know what's over the next hill or what our neighbors are growing in their garden. However, you need sturdy fences to safely raise both sheep and goats, not just to keep them home but to keep predators away. Bears, mountain lions, coyotes or dogs can quickly kill a sheep or goat, even one with horns.

2. Handling
Goats are generally easier to handle than sheep during routine procedures, like deworming, vaccinating and hoof trimming, because frightened sheep, even if they're usually tame, run and run. You must have a catch area to nab them. Some goats that haven't been handled do that too, but most of us let you slip a collar and lead rope around our necks; then we're comparatively easy to handle.

3. Breeding
Mom says on our farm, it's been easier for our sheep to have lambs than for we goats to have kids; therefore, she hasn't had to help the sheep as often. This varies a lot, however, from breed to breed. Our Miniature Cheviots are hardy sheep. Their lambs have small, tapered heads that slip easily through their moms' birth canals, so the ewes rarely have birthing problems. That's not necessarily true of larger-headed breeds. With goats, my Nubian wives never have problems delivering kids, but the Boer girls sometimes do. Again, it depends!

4. Shearing
You don't need a shearer with goats unless you raise Angoras. Mom says that's a giant plus. Wool sheep must be shorn once or twice a year, and sheep shearers are in short supply. But you can also avoid the need to shear by keeping hair sheep breeds, like DorpersKatahdins or Barbados Blackbellies.

5. Grazing and Browsing
Something else to consider is that sheep are grazers and goats are browsers—goats prefer brush, twigs and leaves to grass. If you want an organic lawnmower, think sheep. Goats, however, can neatly clear your farm of pesky brush and weeds. Some hardy mountain breeds, like Scottish Blackface sheep, both browse and graze, but all in all, sheep prefer grass. 

6. Your Preference
And finally, it makes a difference which species you prefer. Mom says we goats are way too mischievous for some livestock keepers (I can't imagine why she says that!), in which case it's better to keep sheep.

About the Author: Ozark Jewels General Martok, who describes himself as "a really studly Nubian buck," lives with his family and friends on a small farm in the Arkansas Ozarks. Read his blog, “Mondays with Martok,” for a peek at their daily animal activities.

Have an animal-related question? Send it to Martok at hobbyfarms@bowtieinc.com, and include “Ask Martok” in the subject.

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Ask Martok: Keeping Sheep Versus Goats

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Reader Comments
I enjoyed the article, good info for someone like me that is considering goats over sheep.

To Nancy of Sardinia who added her comment, thank you loved your insight, just what I needed to hear. I loved the comparison of sheep to cats.
Claire, Farmville, VA
Posted: 12/21/2014 2:05:59 PM
I had horses when I had a series of heart attacks. My worried husband talked me into meat goats, and I haven't regretted it since other than fence. They each know & respond to his or her name. They are very much like dogs in their behavior. They greet you like you've been gone forever even if it was only a few minutes ago.
My horses couldn't have cared less if I lived or died as long as the pasture was green or hay was provided. They'd come for food most of the time, but wanted to leave as soon as they were done. You would have thought they didn't have names for as little attention they paid. They were a lot like cats. They paid attention if you served a purpose at the moment. Goats seem to have the desire to be with you or at least have a let's see what's up personality similar to dogs. The descriptions I've heard of sheep seems to put them into more of a cat personality group. They're happy with their own things going on and only if it's convenient to them are you involved. I'm sure there are exceptions on both sides of this species divide, but all-in-all if you like catitude get sheep. If you like a warm companion get goats.
My other arguments are more practical. I don't care for the taste of lamb or mutton, but I love goat prepared just about anyway you'd prepare beef. The age of the animal doesn't seem to matter either.
Other than hoof care & vaccines I don't have to do a lot with my meat goats if I don't want. I don't have to trim them or shear them or untangle mats or dock tails to maintain hygiene. I choose to let their horns grow too. The straighter horns of a goat make a quick handle and keeps their head in a stanchion better.
Now keeping a goat in a fence takes a lot of work. They will show you your every weakness. They teach profanity then humility.
My dairy goats, besides giving me milk that has settled many of my stomach "diseases", force me to stop moving at least once a day and perform a repetitive task, leaning against a contented, relaxed creature, and let my mind slow down or even drift off; most of the time once I settle in its very relaxing.
The milk, meat, and respite are all good for my heart. And since I can't go back to work I have the pride of bringing something to the table. I might even get to sell some little 4H wethers to offset the feed bill as well.
I will be the first to admit that I was biased against sheep anyway, but not anymore than goats when I first got them. I loved horses and bottle calves, but the practicality of either of those is gone and I love my goats now.
Nancy, Sardinia, OH
Posted: 12/7/2014 3:01:28 AM
Not only does it depend on species, personalities have a lot to do with it, too. My personal experience is that I had a difficult time keeping in my sheep compared to my goats. The sheep was always the first one out with the goats staying behind. Go figure!

And don't forget... sheep compared to goats - you don't have to dock a goat's tail.
Penny, Escanaba, MI
Posted: 1/24/2013 11:11:25 AM
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