General guidelines for feeding sheep and goats

It is recommended that you use the National Research Council's nutrient requirement and feed composition tables to balance rations for sheep, goats, and other small ruminants. You can balance rations by hand (using simple math) or using a personal computer. If you are a goat producer, you can use Langston University's Ration Balancer and Nutrient Requirements Calculator.

Fenceline feederSheep (and meat goat) producers can use an Excel spreadsheet developed by this author. Both programs calculate protein, energy, calcium, and phosphorus requirements and compare them against what you are feeding to determine if your animals' requirements are being met. Commercial ration-balancing programs may also be purchased and used to formulate least-cost rations for sheep and goats.

When rations are not developed using the NRC tables, some general guidelines can be followed. Appropriate adjustments should be made for differences in size (weight), body condition, environmental conditions, and nutritive value of forages and other feedstuffs. You will balance better rations if you how much your livestock weigh and you have your hay (or other forages) tested to determine nutritive content. You can search for certified forage testing laboratories at the National Forage Testing Association web site.

Some general recommendations

  1. There is no one best ration for any purpose.
  2. Proper feeding requires more than one pen or pasture.
  3. Forage should provide the majority of nutrients for sheep and goats.
  4. Forages are the greatest variable and should be tested for their nutritive value.
  5. Do not feed more than 1 ½ lbs. of grain at one feeding.
  6. Start by feeding ¼ lb. of grain per day and gradually increase level.
  7. If you substitute grain for hay, make sure you limit feed both ingredients.
  8. Don't overfeed replacement females. Fattening can have a negative impact on future milk production.
  9. Always make sure you have enough feeder space.
  10. Use feeders for all feedstuffs.
  11. Know what your livestock weigh.
  12. Weigh your feed to know how much you are feeding and how much it is costing you.

Maintenance (dry period, not production-phase, pets)

When feeding a sheep or goat to meet its maintenance requirements, the goal is to maintain body weight and condition. There are some situations where weight loss might be acceptable and can be compensated for at a later time when feeding conditions improve. Maintenance requirements (as a percentage of body weight) tend to increase as animal size (weight) decreases. For example, sheep have higher maintenance requirements than cattle, whereas goats have slightly higher maintenance requirements than sheep.

Flushing (2 weeks before and 2 to 4 weeks into breeding season)

Feeding timeThe body condition of a ewe or doe affects the number of eggs she will ovulate. Ovulation rate sets the upper potential for litter size. The goal of flushing is to improve the body condition of females by getting them to gain weight. This is accomplished by increasing the nutritonal plane.

Flushing increases ovulation rates, which usually result in a higher lambing and kidding percentages. Later in the breeding season, flushing may help to improve embryo survival. Ewes and does already in good body condition (BCS > 3.0) usually do not respond to flushing.

Free access to pasture or 2 ½ to 4 lbs. of grass hay plus . . .

Early to mid-gestation (1st 15 weeks)

During this phase of production, the goal is to maintain body condition of mature females and increase condition of young females. Nutrient requirements are only slightly above maintenance. Sometimes, low quality feedstuffs can be utilized. Young females should be fed separately from mature females.

Late gestation (last six weeks)

Busy bodiesLate gestation is probably the most critical period for ewe and doe nutrition. Ewes and does will gain weight during this phase of production. Seventy percent of fetal growth occurs during this period. Mammary tissue is also developing. Proper nutrition is necessary to prevent pregnancy toxemia (ketosis) and milk fever (low blood calcium).

Nutrition affects the birth weights of lambs and kids. There is a higher mortality among small and large lambs and kids. Oversized fetuses increase dystocia (birthing difficulties). Aim for a body condition of 3.0 to 3.5. Young females should be fed separately from mature females. In addition to gestating, they are still growing and have higher nutritional requirements. Oftentimes, they have difficulty competing for feeder space with mature females.

Feed 4 to 5 lbs. of a grass or mixed hay plus . . .

Lambing and kidding

There is no reason to push feed at ewes or does that have just given birth to their offspring. Ewes and does that have been properly fed in late gestation usually produce more than enough colostrum for their offspring. In fact, it is a good idea to collect and freeze the colostrum from single-bearing females. Too much feed early may increase the milk flow beyond what the babies can consume.

Early lactation (first 6 to 8 weeks)

Nursing twinsThis is when ewes and does have their highestnutritional requirements, especially if they are nursing multiple offspring. Ideally, you should separate lactating females into production groups (singles vs. twins vs. triplets) and feed them according to the number of offspring they are nursing. Young females should be fed separately from mature females. In addition to producing milk for their offspring, they are still growing and have higher nutritional requirements. Oftentimes, they have difficulty competing for feeder space with mature females.

Feed 4 to 7 lbs. of hay plus . . .

HIGH quality pasture should meet the nutritional needs of ewes and does nursing singles and twins whereas females nursing triplets usually require grain supplemention; otherwise, the third lamb or kid should be removed for artificial rearing.

At weaning

A body condition score of 2.0 to 2.5 is not uncommon at the time of weaning. If early weaning is practiced, proper feeding management is necessary to prevent mastitis (udder infections).

Lactating dairy does

Feeding dairy females is related to their genetic potential for milk production, as well as the desired level of production. As with dairy cattle, maximum milk production is not always the most profitable goal. Grass-based dairies feed less concentrate and have lower milk yields, but may return a greater profit to the operator.Saanen does

Feed free choice hay plus . . .

Dry period

Lambs and kids

PVC pipe feederGrowing lambs and kids have the highest protein requirements (percentage-wise) of any sheep or goat. Creep feeding (providing supplemental feed to nursing lambs/kids) may or may not be economical, especially for goats. Energy needs depend largely upon desired growth rates and the animals' genetic potential for growth. As with milk production maximum growth is not always the most profitable goal. Replacement females should not be fed for maximum gain because excess fat will be deposited in the mammary tissue, reducing future milk potential.

The genetic potential for growth varies by species, breed, and individual. Because hair sheep and meat goats fatten differently than other livestock (from the inside-out), they should be fed lower energy diets that enable them to grow frame before fat. In fact, lambs can be finished at heavier finish weights (~0.20 inches backfat) if they are fed a lower energy diet over a longer period of time. Due to the increased demand for lambs (and sometimes goats) at the Muslim holidays, there may be some circumstances where it makes sense to hold lambs at a zero level of gain.

Protein level

Bucks and rams

Dorper ramThere is a tendency to overlook the nutrition of rams and bucks. In other situations, rams and bucks are overfed. Aim for a body condition score of 3.0 to 3.5 at the start of the breeding season. Do not allow males to get fat. Some males will literally "starve" themselves during the breeding season, so be prepared to supplement them, if necessary with grain.

Copyright © 2008.

Resources/Additional Reading
Feeding sheep - Virginia Tech
Nutrition of meat goats - North Carolina State University
[PPT] Feeding the lactating and pregnant female

Created or last updated by Susan Schoenian on 21-Dec-2009 .