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How many miniature sheep per acre?

Working mule

Years ago, we learned the most important lesson of animal husbandry --- have sufficient pasture before bringing your new livestock home.  But how many acres do you need for a sheep or goat or cow?

The trouble with answering this question is that an arid pasture in the western U.S. might support only a fifth as many animals per acre as a lush pasture in the southern Appalachians.  So animal scientists have come up with what are known as "animal units" which compare all kinds of different livestock to a 1,000 pound beef cow.  An average full-size sheep is 0.2 AU, which means you can keep five sheep in the same space as the average beef cow.  Here are some figures for other livestock you might be interested in:

  • Animal unitMature bull - 1.5 AU
  • 450 pound calf - 0.5 AU
  • Holstein cow - 1.5 AU
  • Work horse - 2 AU
  • Saddle horse - 1.25 AU
  • Boar - 0.5 AU
  • Brood sow - 0.25 AU
  • 100 pound feeder pig - 0.05 AU
  • Mature sheep - 0.2 AU
  • Mature goat - 0.17 AU
  • Roaster chicken (or, presumably, a layer) - 0.004 AU
  • Heritage breed broiler chicken - 0.0025 AU
  • Cornish cross chicken - 0.0015 AU

Within a species, you can estimate that the amount of pasture an animal needs is roughly proportional to how much it weighs.  So, if you're pasturing bantams, they'll need a good deal less pasture than for standard-sized chickens, and ditto if you're raising miniature sheep or dwarf goats.  The figures I found on the internet suggest that an average Miniature Cheviot sheep weighs about 43% as much as a full-size sheep, so each one would be equivalent to 21.5 chickens instead of 50 chickens.

Chicken pastureWe've never raised cows on our land, but I have figured out that our chickens need at least 270 square feet apiece to keep from degrading the pasture.  That means we should plan on at least 0.325 acres for a herd of 2.5 miniature sheep (mama, papa, and baby.)  If we wanted to keep a similar herd of full-size sheep, we'd need 0.75 acres fenced in.  And if we didn't want to give the sheep any supplemental feed in the winter, we'd probably need to double those numbers.

Pasture map

Mark's been building pastures like mad all year, and if we finished up the two he recently started, we'd already have almost a quarter of an acre fenced in.  Maybe miniature sheep wouldn't have to be pushed as far into the future as I thought?

Our chicken waterer makes care of our flock too easy.  Maybe that's what makes me dream about sheep?


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Aren't beef cows usually kept in small pens and fed on lots of corn and antibiotics? How is that factored in to the calculations?

Interesting to see that a horse needs more space than a cow. Is that because horses need room to move, or do they eat more?

From the photo, it seems like the mules didn't have any trouble clearing the overgrowth. :-)

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Aug 29 12:53:13 2011

Roland --- That is the industrial model, but the AU calculations assume you're raising your animals on pasture instead. You'll still be feeding them some amount of supplemental grain and/or hay, primarily in the winter, but my understanding is that the model used to factor AUs assumes the animals are getting nearly all of their forage from pasture in the spring, summer, and fall. (With omnivores like pigs and chickens, they won't be getting nearly all of their nutrition from pasture even during those periods, but they'll be getting the maximum amount they can.)

I suspect the horse vs. cow distinction is a male/female thing. You'll notice a bull actually needs more pasture than the average saddle horse --- I think there's more sexual dimorphism among cattle than horses. The work horse presumably needs more pasture both because it's working and because they tend to be heftier animals.

Our mules definitely cleared the overgrowth...and the undergrowth... :-)

Comment by anna Mon Aug 29 14:51:10 2011
Actually, most beef cows spend most of their lives out in the pasture. It's only the end stage of life that any or most of them end up in a feed lot. Here in Kansas I help run a cow/calf operation. The cows only come out of the pasture and into the coral in the early winter so we don't end up damaging the pasture ground through the cold, windy winter months. The equation is the same. I'm just not sure of the actual values.
Comment by William L Thu Dec 13 19:43:33 2012

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime