The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Or maybe miniature sheep?

Babydoll sheepYour comments on my post about Nigerian dwarf goats were extremely thought-provoking and helped us clarify our thinking.  Although the idea of goat milk is intriguing, I have to admit that the real reasons I want to add an herbivore to the farm are (in order of importance):

  • Weed control --- We moved all of our chickens from tractors to pastures last fall, which means a lot of pastures to maintain.  My observations suggest that the optimal pasture for a chicken has a lot of tender herbaceous growth close to the ground mixed in with trees and shrubs.  However, what our pastures want to turn into is thickets of tall, herbaceous plants like ragweed, wingstem, virgin's bower, and Japanese honeysuckle, all of which keep the tender growth out of reach of chicken beaks.  Yes, we can commit a few days a year to weed whacking, but if we could get an animal to manage our pastures while also producing useful products, how could we resist?
  • Miniature Katahdin SheepMeat --- Eating pastured meat seems to be one of the keys to keeping my moods and weight more in balance, but it's so expensive (and hard to find enough from growers you trust.)  Any little bit we grow ourselves would help.
  • Manure --- Although we'll lose half or more of the manure to the pasture, if we make sure the livestock sleep inside at night on deep bedding, we'll be able to harvest considerable biomass for the garden.

Which all sent me thinking back toward the livestock Mark and I had first talked about years ago --- sheep.  The trouble with ordinary sheep is that they require a lot of space, having equivalent food needs to about 50 chickens or a fifth of a cow apiece.  Then there's the fact that sheep are fans of grass, which makes them much less helpful since they wouldn't eat the big weeds I'm looking to take out.  But then I learned about miniature sheep.

Soay sheepMiniature sheep are a bit less than half the size of ordinary sheep, which means we could potentially keep a ewe, a ram, and their lamb on about a fifth of an acre in our wet climate.  If you pick and choose your variety wisely, you can even find miniature sheep that have been bred to forage well on forbs (non-grassy herbaceous plants like the ones overrunning our pastures.)

I've included photos of the varieties I find most intriguing (skipping miniature sheep that are raised primarily for wool.)  I'm leery of the Babydoll Southdowns, even though they're the easiest to find, because I can't turn up any information on their ability to graze on rough pasture and the name makes me think they've been bred primarily as pets.  Soay sheep are intriguing but there's very little data about using them as meat goats.

Miniature Katahdins are near the top of my list because all of our neighbors raise the full-size version and "Hair Sheep" seem to do very well in our climate and on rough pastures.  On the other hand, a quick search of the internet turns up no local sources of the miniature variety.

Miniature cheviot sheepMy next favorite is the Miniature Cheviot, which is reputed to have been bred to survive on Scottish moors with no shelter or supplemental food.  Although still not very common, there are two breeders within a long day's drive of us, which makes the breed at least feasible.

So what do you think about miniature sheep?  Have any of you had first hand experience with the breeds I mentioned?  Any other forb-foraging, meaty, miniature sheep I should look into instead?  Or should we change our sights yet again to a different type of herbivore entirely?

Our chicken waterer means waterers never spill on uneven terrain in pastures.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I like the idea of Cheviot sheep since they will browse. It seems like any browsing animal would meet your needs a little better than a grazer, plus this reduces their chances of picking up parasites. I don't know how much you have to worry about parasites, and good rotation would keep that to a minimum, but in Louisiana that's one of our biggest concerns besides fencing.I have only been considering the more efficient parasite-resistant Us heritage breeds, like spanish goats and gulf coast sheep. ?Neither are minatures though.
Comment by Sara Sun Aug 28 11:09:41 2011
Interesting point about browsers being less parasite-prone than grazers. I actually haven't researched sheep much at all beyond the acreage and feed issue --- looks like parasites should be top of my research list!
Comment by anna Sun Aug 28 15:23:46 2011
My preference is still goats, both for their milk which you can turn into cheese, and for their foraging. The cheese could be another source of income. However, if you go with the Miniature Cheviot sheep, you most likely would be ablt to sell their wool to a local knitter. Would the goats be subject to parasites as well as the sheep?
Comment by Sheila Sun Aug 28 21:32:44 2011

If you've got enough pasture for sheep, why not just get a cow for beef? You can buy a yearling in the spring at around 600lb or so, pasture it until the fall when it weighs 1000lb and will yield 400+lb of freezer beef. Good eatin'. You'd need less than an acre of pasture - you don't have to worry about over-wintering.

BTW- don't your chickens eat more seeds & bugs than plants?

Comment by doc Sun Aug 28 21:35:19 2011
Have you thought or looked into those kind of sheep that arent the wooly kinds? We enjoyed a Corsican and Mouflon rams recently and I personally enjoyed the flavor of the meat. A local guy in our area raises the barbado/corsican and has them in with red deer (originally from Europe) and they do real well together. They like the lamb but have some of the older ones strictly as pets now. Granted the rams we ate were ones we harvested off a hunting game ranch but they still were the land didnt have weeds below 4-5 feet.
Comment by David Sun Aug 28 21:49:24 2011

Sheila --- I think we're just not ready for a dairy animal yet. Maybe if we do well with the sheep, we can expand to dairy goats eventually! I figured that we wouldn't be too hard-pressed to get rid of the fleeces with the sheep, although chances are we'd give the wool away as gifts to knitting friends. :-) You're totally right that parasites are a big problem with goats too.

Doc --- Cows tend to require better pasture than goats or sheeps, and even the smallest miniature cows need a lot more acreage and better fences. We're looking for something small that we can mix in with our existing chickens in their pastures to keep the big weeds down, and cows just don't fit that description.

It's very true that chickens prefer bugs, but they also like tender green growth, which seems to disappear fast when the big weeds shade the understory out. The bugs tend to move up into the new growth and out of reach too! We're experimenting with planting perennials in our pastures that will give the chickens more nutritious feed --- mulberries are a prime example --- but it takes years for perennials to produce much, so in the meantime we're stuck keeping the chicken-eye-level plants as productive as possible.

David --- The Katahdin (Hair) sheep and Soay are the only miniature sheep I've run across that don't require sheering. The former are just too rare for us to find --- the nearest breeder I was able to hunt out online is in Washington state! The Soay is a possibility, but they seem to be bred primarily for wool despite the fact that you don't sheer them (you pick it off in the spring), so I'm not sure whether their meat is worth it.

Comment by anna Mon Aug 29 07:05:45 2011
Can you email me the source for the Cheviotte sheep? They sound about right for our needs and I'm wondering which direction that long day's drive is for you (and us). Thanks!
Comment by Everett Mon Aug 29 14:29:25 2011
Nevermind, I used this thing called Google to find the breeders. It looks like there's one in WV less than two hours from us. Hmm....
Comment by Everett Mon Aug 29 14:35:42 2011

Seems to me that your saying you want goats but don't want to fuss with milking. So maybe sheep, but not wool. I'm not sure that there is any sheep that will clear brush like a goat. Goats actually prefer the stuff you are wanting removed. Also in my experience sheep are wanderers whereas goats seem to stay close. So if your pastures started to look bare in the winter you could let the goats out to roam around your compound.

Why not just get non-dairy goats. Around here these kind of goats are everywhere. Often times you can find people giving them away or for a low price. They got them to clear an area and now its done, or their kids raise them to show for 4-h in the fair. I think sheep are much more problematic.

Just wondering. Is there any concerns with sheep and their wool in a wet/humid environment with fungus or mold? Our high humidity used to make ours smell but I don't remember any other complications.

Comment by Erich Mon Aug 29 14:45:07 2011
Everett --- If you click on the photo of the Miniature Cheviot sheep in the post, it will take you to the closest breeder I found, in Pennsylvania. It looks like you're a better googler than me! I'll be emailing you to find your source... :-)
Comment by anna Mon Aug 29 14:46:42 2011

Erich --- Unfortunately, we're not interested in either full-size goats or full-size sheep, which reduces our options considerably. Both would require much more pasture than we'll have time to fence in anytime soon and would need much heftier fences if I want to keep them out of the garden. To the best of my knowledge, there are only four main types of miniature goats:

  • Nigerian dwarf goats (dairy)

  • Pygmy goats (dairy)

  • Miniature dairy goats (various hybrids between Nigerian dwarfs and standard milk goats)

  • Miniature fainting goats (pets)

Both goats and sheep seem to vary a lot by breed in respect to what they'll happily eat. We're considering the miniature cheviots because they'll eat "anything except thistles" (says the breeder I contacted with my questions.)

It's interesting to hear that you think of sheep as being more problematic than goats. I've ordered a sheep book because I honestly know very little about care of either! We'll see if reading the book scares me off four-footed livestock entirely. :-)

Comment by anna Mon Aug 29 16:10:43 2011

I'm enjoying all the comments! So many thoughts and opinions. Just to give my final decision, I've been scared away from 4-leggeds for now... mostly because of the time commitment.

When I get around to it I hope to have multi-species grazing with 1-2 small cows and a few goats. I've read that the two graze well together, and you can rotate cows in after goats and your cows will actually consume and process goat parasites without getting ill-- they clean up the bugs! This is all just literature review, and hopefully in a year or two I will be able to test it against reality.

Seth's uncle had a goat dairy on this property over 30 years ago and the whole herd was killed by some type of bug. They were way overcrowded. Apparently the eggs/cysts would persist in the soil for 15+ years. It should be safe now, but that's why it's such a big concern for me.

Comment by Sara Mon Aug 29 21:40:21 2011
Sara --- I know what you mean about the commitment. Depending on the day, I'm halfway scared out of it too. I'm going to read a few books on each and see what I think once I have all the data. :-)
Comment by anna Tue Aug 30 08:00:23 2011

Anna, I know you have a creek running through your property, so you should probably look for some information on "Liver Fluke". They can be a problem in damp areas (not just for sheep).

I don't know about the miniatures, but the full sized version of the Cheviot is also prone to foot-rot when kept in damp, lowland pastures; they're much more at home climbing hills (they originate, like me, in the borders). Despite being more like goats in that respect, they also have an annoying habit of falling over in odd places and then being unable to get up by themselves (there's a reason that the job of Shepherd still exists :-)). You'll definitely want to check your little flock a couple of times a day, just in case.

Comment by John Thu Sep 1 09:56:24 2011

My daughter raised a sheep for 4H this year and we helped a neighbor with some nigerian dwarf goats and a few nubians (full-sized dairy goats). It was interesting to get acquainted with the different animals first hand and how they interact with each other and people. Here are a few things that I learned:

  • Both sheep and goats are social animals and will do much better if there are at least one other for it to be with. (Our lamb baad and baad constantly until we put it in a pen with some other sheep. A goat will do the same)

  • Both sheep and goats are quite strong and will test weak areas in any fence. They tend to stick together, but they will wander off in search of better grazing, if possible.

  • Dairy goats will only give milk if they have been freshened (given birth) in the past year or so. If you are not interested in the milk, you can either not breed them or let the kids drink the milk. (The mother's milk production will adjust to how much she is milked or the young will drink)

  • Not all goats and sheep eat the same type of foraging. You will want to research what type of natural forage you have available and what type that animal will eat. The childhood idea of a goat eating everything including cans isn't quite true, at least not for any of the goats that I have seen. They can still be quite picky. Like foraging chickens, sheep and goats also have their favorites.

  • Sheering sheep can be a lot of work, which is why it is fairly common to find professionals who travel to farms to sheer them. However, if you only have a couple animals, the cost may not be justified to bring them out. Buying your own equipment can be expensive, but after learning how to do it well, can pay for itself by doing this for other local sheep raisers.

  • Mature sheep are not generally used for meat, but lamb (less than a year) is quite popular. The market for goat meat is more common in different ethnic groups in the US. If you are raising an animal for meat, it makes a big difference in taste if you feed them a quality grain mix than just hay.

These were a few thoughts that came to mind. I hope that this helps in making an educated decision. My daughter sold her lamb at the county fair, so we are also thinking about what to do for the long run. We have about 25 chickens and a pair of angora rabbits, but we could use a pair of sheep or goats to keep the weeds down once we have a sturdy fence up. (We haven't decided yet)

Comment by David Thu Sep 1 12:33:46 2011

John --- The parasite problem is one I'd heard of (but not read up on yet.) I'd heard that careful pasture rotation could deal with it, but I know I have a lot of research left to do.

It's good to hear that first hand information about Cheviots and foot rot. That doesn't sound good!

David --- This is just the kind of information that helps us so much with our decision-making! Thank you!

I'd been wondering about the dairy issue. I knew that if I let the kid stay on the mom full time, I wouldn't have to milk that year. What I wondered was whether that would make milking in later years more problematic. Hopefully someone can chime in and let me know if that's the case!

Comment by anna Thu Sep 1 15:57:13 2011

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