Ask Martok: Keeping Sheep Versus Goats

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

by Martok
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

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.

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.

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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.

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