Ready to add a few four-legged creatures to your homestead but torn between the gentle sheep and the spunky goat? Author Sue Weaver says first, know your goals.
People sometimes ask me, Which are better: goats or sheep?, to which I reply, It depends.
If you want an organic lawnmower, buy sheep. Don’t laugh. Prior to the invention of today’s lawnmowers, parks and estates were mown with scythes and sheep. Sheep are grazers. They nibble grass closely and uniformly except in certain spots where they relieve themselves. That’s where the scythes came in.
If you need to clear brush, buy goats. Goat love browse: weeds, twigs, shrubs, and leaves. They prefer to feed at chin height or higher, so, yard grass? No thanks. They’ll eat grass if there’s nothing else available but your yard won’t look manicured when grazed by goats.
Fiber? Most sheep grow lovely, glorious wool. Angora goats grow cushy mohair. All goats produce cashmere because it’s their winter underwear, though Cashmere goats grow the finest and the most.
Meat? Both species can be raised for meat, though it isn’t something we do on our farm. Most Americans have dined on lamb, though fewer are familiar with mutton from mature sheep. Before we became vegetarians, a friend slow-cooked a divine pot roast prepared using mutton from an old Cheviot ewe; it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. And according to Michigan State University, 75 percent of the world eats goat meat. I tasted goat meat while writing Storey’s Guide to Raising Meat Goats (under my pseudonym, Maggie Sayer). It was delicious! Either species works well for meat eaters with an adventurous palate.
Household dairy products? Goat milk is über-healthy and utterly luscious when it’s handled correctly but sheep milk is yummy too. According to United Nations figures, in 2001, goats produced 12.5 million liters of milk for 2.1 percent of the world’s total milk production, while sheep produced a surprising 7.8 million liters amounting to 1.3 percent of the world’s milk production. Now that Americans have access to specialized dairy breeds like East Friesians and Lacaunes, sheep make great household dairy providers. Worth noting: according to “The Nutritional Value of Sheep Milk” by George F. W. Haenlein, while goat milk averages 3.56 percent protein, 4.14 percent fat, and 12.96 percent solids, sheep milk checks out at a whopping 5.98 percent, 19.30 percent, and 19.30 percent respectively. What this means is that sheep milk is the perfect medium for crafting great yogurt and cheese.
Those are the practical facts. Now here are my opinions.
Sheep are easier to keep than goats, with one caveat. Sheep are wired to flee when frightened. Even tame, in-your-pocket sheep are frightened by procedures such as shearing, hoof trimming, and annual vaccinations. Contrary to popular belief, sheep are quite intelligent but that all flies out the window when they’re frightened. If you keep sheep, even just a few, be prepared to set up handling facilities. You’ll need them.
We’ve kept beautiful, double-registered Classic and Miniature Cheviots for nearly 12 years and we find that sheep are sweet, smart, and affectionate. We love the glorious wool they give us. Sheep challenge fences to a lesser degree, they have fewer birthing problems, and they suffer fewer illnesses than goats. They appreciate their keepers in their quiet, sheepy manner and they don’t lie awake at night brainstorming ways to drive humans crazy, like squeezing through the fence and tap dancing on a neighbor’s new truck or raiding the garden. They are hardier and less mischievous than goats.
That is, however, what makes goat keepers adore their caprine charges. In the 11 years we’ve shared our lives with goats we’ve learned that goats are ultra-intelligent, cheeky, demonstrative, and fun. They’re also hard on fences, single-minded, and they get themselves into amazing fixes at times. It takes a special kind of person to relate to goats (a well-developed sense of humor is essential). You’ll adore goats or hate them. It’s that simple.
And which do I prefer? Goats — but by a very narrow margin. I love the silly things they do and their goofy ways of showing affection. But I love my wooly friends, too.
My advice? Get both.
Text © Sue Weaver