Which Ruminants To Start With: Goats, Sheep Or Cattle?

Ruminants can be the perfect solution for many farm needs, but choosing which animals to add when is a matter of realizing your land's needs.

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: William/Adobe Stock

Remember the first time you butchered a chicken? Or put up your very first batch of canned tomatoes? What about the first apple pie you baked from apples that came from your very own homestead? These things are milestones—significant passages in our homestead journeys toward food independence. They’re really memorable, beautiful and significant.

These accomplishments aren’t just personal victories. They’re victories for your biological community, the sum of all the living things on your homestead. With your management and assistance, energy—solar energy, sunlight, the only source of life—has been captured and launched on its journey through the food web. Life is enhanced on your land, and you’ve taken a starring role. 

Listening to the Land

Once we start homesteading, the adventure of partnering with Mother Nature just gets more exciting. We want to produce more of our own food. We want to eliminate the feed bill and replace those purchased calories with energy straight from our land. We find we want to do more, and bigger, things that will leverage our most important natural resources, sunlight and rainfall, for the renewal and regeneration of our farms.

And, sooner or later, we realize that we need to be harvesting our fields, lawns, meadows and pastures with grazing animals. Good, holistic grazing is the key to utilizing every drop of rain, and every photon, for the fertility and abundance of our homesteads.

But getting a good start in regenerative grazing doesn’t automatically happen when you buy some temporary fencing and an energizer! The very first step, even before you bring an animal onto your land, must be to study your environment and determine what kind of grazing animal your land really needs. Because for your farm to be regenerative, it needs to fit the landscape; it needs to listen to the land.

And grazing animals are not all alike.

Subscribe now

Who Eats What?

This is obvious when we look at the most common homestead ruminants—cows, sheep and goats. These are the big players in a regenerative homestead, because they are the most efficient converters of plant material into food energy and soil improvement. If you want to harvest the most energy possible from your land, ruminants are going to be your first choice.

But the different ruminant species have different diets, different behavioral habits and different impacts when they graze. Knowing what kinds of plant foods each prefers, and the propensities of each, will help you select the proper ruminant to have the most positive impact—on your land, on your foodscape, on your diet and on your budget.

ruminant ruminants sheep pasture
Susan/Adobe Stock

Caprine Cuisine

If your land is one solid mass of thorny plants—briars, berry canes, and thorny bushes—you’ve got a banquet for goats. Cheaper than a tractor/brush hog rig, a goat—or a whole herd of goats—can tame your thorny jungle and turn it into milk and meat for your table. 

And no other species of domestic ruminant has quite the taste for woody, gnarly, spiny snacks that goats have. Maybe you’re thinking you want to raise something else—Babydoll Southdown sheep are cute, and a Jersey cow could give you a lot of butter cream. But if your homestead is presently saying it in briars, bring on the goats.

The great thing is, not only are goats the diners for your pasture’s dinner, they’re the fix for your forages. They’ll turn your briars into beautiful grassy meadows. That’s because the brushy plants that goats prefer don’t really benefit from grazing the way, say, grass and clover do. When we allow goats to browse heavily and often, our brushy perennials have to spend their stored energy on regrowth. Eventually they just give up. Then grasses and forbs—broadleaf plants like clovers and weeds—move in to cover the soil. Our thorny fields become pastures.

When that happens, it’s time to move the goats out. Yes, they can eat grass and clover, but what they really thrive on is woody, fibrous growth rich in phytochemicals such as tannins and glycoalcaloids. Further, goats are browsers, best suited to grazing at the height of their own shoulder or higher. They lack the instinct that makes other ruminants avoid grazing near their own manure, so goats that feed at ground level are apt to become pathologically infected with parasites. 

So when the brush and briars are eradicated it’s time to move them on to a new patch of woody overgrowth. If you were thinking all along that you’d rather keep cows or sheep, your time has come. Now your pastures are cow and sheep-friendly.

And good grazing, that benefits the plants and the animals, only happens when we let the forages tell us what species of ruminant it is best to graze.

Sheep & Cows

Tall, weedy broadleafs—common weeds such as goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace and ragweed—are perfect sheep food. While sheep will graze turf grasses, clovers and other short, dense ground covers, their real gift is for nibbling the leaves off of taller forages. Which is great, because this is a niche that fits right between goats, with their love of woody, thorny plants, and cows, who thrive on lush grasses and tender legumes. 

Sheep love to bunch together and move as a group through patches of broadleaf plants, stripping off the foliage and leaving just the stems. This is especially valuable behavior when leveraged against an incurrence of invasive species such as kudzu or Japanese knotweed. Run a group of sheep through and strip the plants bare. Then, when the stems put on a second flush of foliage, bring the sheep back to denude them again. Impact of this kind, when repeated frequently, can whip the most persistent weed infestations.

Cow and sheep pastures look an awful lot alike—for good reason. Cows and sheep utilize a lot of the same plants and in similar ways. For really good utilization of forages, give us sheep and cows, together! 

Both eat grass and legumes; both like broadleaf weeds. But where sheep concentrate their grazing on broadleafs when these are present, cows are more selective, harvesting specific plant parts at specific times, seldom stripping the whole plant.

Sheep utilize more of the broadleaf as food. What cows bring to weed management that sheep don’t is overall impact. Cows, with their larger bodies and feet, knock down and trample what they don’t eat. And both will eat some of everything—even spiny, thorny plants like briars—and make good use of it.

Positive Impacts

In fact, this matter of impact will play an equal role with forage type in determining what species of ruminant your land needs. Animal behavior in general is a factor in species appropriateness. An animal’s size and agility will have a lot to do with how well-suited it is to your pasture. Not only do heavy animals cause more compaction in wet soils—something that can be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on circumstance—but a larger, heavier animal is likely to do more damage if left too long on creek or pond banks, or navigating steep slopes. 

In general, the wetter, steeper or less stable your land, the smaller the animal species that is appropriate to it. So after you ask yourself the questions “what is growing here?” and “who eats that?,” ask: “Which species of ruminant will be most suited to my topography?” Leave the steep, rocky slopes to the sheep and goats, and keep the cows on the more level ground.

ruminant ruminants cow pasture
Alexander/Adobe Stock

Good Grazing!

Maybe you’ve been on this path for a while, or maybe you’ve only just begun to see a bigger goal behind your garden and flock of chickens, but when you’re ready to take the next step, you’ll want to talk about grazing. Because grazing—harvesting whatever grass, forbs (weeds), shrubs and low-hanging tree branches your land grows—is the most effective and productive way we have to turn local sunlight into nutrients to feed us, our livestock and our soil. 

Grazing animals harvest default forages—persistent volunteer plant communities, meaning the plants that want to be here, that belong here and will stay here. They then turn them into manure, to enrich the soil; meat and milk, to feed the hungry humans; and into more grazing animals, which keep the cycle going around.

Good, attentive, regenerative grazing is a soil-building, climate-improving miracle.

More Information

Toxic or Therapeutic? 

We see it all the time in farm consultations and pasture visits: Homesteaders ready to purchase their first ruminant are suddenly set back by the discovery that among the many plant species in their pastures are some the extension officer, or the next door neighbor, or the plant field guide, identifies as toxic. Full of fear, they cancel their plans to bring in a cow, sheep or goat while they try to figure out how to eradicate the dangerous plant species.

If this is your experience, take heart! Most “toxic” species might more correctly be labeled “medicinal.” Or, since holistically grazed animals tend to enjoy the high levels of health that make medicines unnecessary, we might call these plants “therapeutic.”

By consuming nonforage plants with traces of phytochemicals (complex plant-constructed compounds) such as tannins, glycoalcaloids, phenols and other such compounds that, taken in large doses, could be toxic, grazing livestock access their best defense against parasites, deficiencies and diseases. Grazed animals learn to identify these species and know when, what parts and how much to consume for natural health. 

In any case, most animals will avoid toxic plants, preferring to do most of their grazing among familiar, nutritious and tasty forage species. 

Pigs & Poultry

Keeping poultry and pigs on pasture instead of in pens can be a great idea, but you should know what you’re doing and why. Pigs can knock down a weed patch, harvest fruit or nut windfalls, or do some serious surface alterations. 

What a pig can’t do is convert cellulosic fiber into meat. Of the domestic animals, only the ruminants can break down coarse fiber and extract its energy for other uses. And because pasture plants are about 80 percent fiber, that’s a lot of energy.

Poultry can be managed on pasture in several ways. Tractored birds, and birds confined with poultry netting, can be moved gradually across pastures to de-bug and spread manure. Free-range birds have the run of the homestead, so they also are well-placed to harvest what is useful to them in the pasture—things such as seeds, tender leaves, bugs and worms. But, like pigs, poultry can’t digest fiber, so 80 percent of your pasture energy is unavailable to them. 

Nonruminant livestock have important roles to play in forage harvest communities! Their scavenging, manure-spreading, dethatching, and aeration are valuable ecological services. But for harvesting pasture plants and converting them into forms that fuel the farmstead—things such as milk, meat and manure—ruminants rule.

This article appeared in Hobby Farm Home, a 2024 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. In addition to this piece, Hobby Farm Home includes recipes, crafting projects, preservation tips and more. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Healing Herbs and  Goats 101 by following this link.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *