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Nutrition in Sheep and Goats

A student at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine, shares their knowledge of sheep and goat nutrition.

The following is written by Christian Williams, DVM Candidate class of 2024

Sheep and goats are included in a group of animals called small ruminants. They are often considered to be very similar. But these animals all have some major differences in how they look, how they act, and especially what they eat. For most ruminants, nutrition can be put into three different categories: forage, concentrates, and supplements. Some sheep and goats need food from all three of these categories. Others may only need forage, which is the most important when it comes to sheep and goats. Let’s look at each of these categories and see how the diets of sheep and goats are similar and different.

Forages: This food group includes mostly hay and grass. It is the most important of all the food groups because of a secret weapon that sheep and goats have. All ruminants have one thing in common – their stomach.

The ruminant stomach has four different compartments. The first compartment (called the rumen) is filled with fluid and lots of different bugs! No, these aren’t bugs like crickets and caterpillars. They have “bugs” called bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. These bugs are important because they eat the forage (like grass and hay) and make really small food products that the ruminant can use for energy and protein sources. So, while we can’t eat a bunch of grass and call it a meal, ruminants can because of their friends that live in their stomach! This is true for both sheep and goats, but they do eat different kinds of forages. Sheep are what we call “grazers.” They like to eat mostly grass or whatever will grow out in a big field. Goats are called “browsers.” They like to eat grass too, but they also eat leaves from trees and bushes. This is why you may see a goat climbing up a tree to get a snack but not a sheep!

Concentrates: These include different types of grains that you can buy as pellets from the store. They are high in energy, kind of like ice cream or cake for us. Most pet sheep and goats can just eat forages and be healthy, but other sheep and goats need a little extra energy.

Growing kids and lambs (young goats and sheep) need concentrates in their diet so they can grow up to be big and strong. Moms also need extra energy to take care of their babies. But sheep and goats can’t have too much of this type of food. Too much concentrates is not good for the bugs that live in their stomach, which can make the animal sick. This can give them a stomach ache like when we eat too much ice cream and cake!

Supplements: This includes extra vitamins and minerals that can be added to grain or given in a big, solid block that they can lick like we would eat a popsicle. Just like concentrates, too many vitamins and minerals can make them sick. Sheep and goats need different types of supplements added to their food. Goats need a little extra copper added to their diet, but sheep usually get enough copper from the forages they eat. This is one of the most important differences between sheep and goats. Sheep can get really sick if they eat goat food or supplements because they can’t handle the extra copper in these foods. Some animals need different vitamins and minerals depending on where they live. In North Carolina, our forages don’t have a lot of a mineral called selenium. Most sheep and goats in this area need a little extra selenium in their diet so they won’t get sick.

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