Grazing Habits of Sheep, Goats, & Cattle

Do you choose your livestock because of the type of food available in your pastures or do you buy livestock because of what food they provide for you and then look for food for them?

My answer would be all of the above. In part because I’m a pasture idiot. I know little about the plants growing in my pastures, which ones which livestock will eat, and at what times of the year. Yes, plants differ in taste and nutritional level depending on the growth stage and different plants grow best in different weather conditions. I don’t know the role of each plant in the field whether they help with nitrogen, pH balance or what.

I don’t know how many animals I can pasture without over grazing. In Wyoming it requires on average 30 acres per cow. Goats or sheep eat about 4 -5 pounds a day. Beef eat about 24 pounds a day which gives you a ratio of 1 beef per, just a little less than, 5 goats or sheep but that is dependent on pasture suitable for their needs. Is mine? Not a clue.

So while I experiment, I’ll do some research and someday I will know on an average year how many head of what kind of stock we can pasture for the greater part of the year. I know our pastures are impassable in winter and therefor we have to buy hay. How much hay on average is another question needing answered. This summer with the drought, we ran out of pasture feed the middle of July so the stock is back on hay.


By altering our pastures, improving upon them, we can reach a higher ratio of animals per pasture. Then comes the question of what animals are best suited for where we live and feed available? I’ve begun studying what sheep and goats eat and beef too there are overlaps and differences. Cattle graze coarser and taller forage species grabbing it with their tongues, lower teeth, and upper dental pad devouring large amounts to fill their larger rumen. Beef are a good companion to sheep which have cleft upper lips which permit them to graze much closer to the soil surface and they focus on more nutritious forbs, and grass regrowth with some browsing thrown in. 


Weather plays a role in the nutrition level of pasture. Most grass forages are highly digestible and permit high levels of intake during the early stages of growth when temperatures are cool and when soil moisture is adequate. Hot weather reduces feeding value regardless of management which is where we sit now with our animal’s heads stuck in the hay racks. Sheep are smart in that they pick plants to eat during the year according to when they are highest in nutritional levels.


Goats differ from other domestic livestock in that they are primarily browsers and will feed on shrubs, trees, and forbs in preference to grazing other forages. As browsers, goats are highly selective in their feeding habits, yet they are adaptive in confinement and will eat diets similar to other ruminants such as cattle and sheep. Which is good because I don’t really have goat pasture.

Grass Consumption                       Forbs Consumption                    Browes Consumption

Sheep – 50%                                         Sheep – 30%                                        Sheep – 20%

Cattle – 70%                                         Cattle – 15%                                         Cattle – 15%

Goats – 30%                                          Goats – 10%                                         Goats – 60%

My research tells me I have a long way to go to be able to maximize my pastures as my knowledge is my greatest limitation. I need to know the plants in my field and how to maximize their potential. I need to introduce plants that would help with soil erosion on our steep slope. Plants that increase nitrogen, calcium, and have a high nutrient base for feed.

So? Are our pastures best suited for the animals we have chosen to raise?

I don’t have the answer as I’m not really sure what’s growing there. I’m going to start photographing and recording my observations. Already I can tell certain plants are thicker in areas but why I have no clue. We have a lot of lupine and Yellow Flowered Pea which are poisonous and I need to reduce the population. We need diversification to ensure heightened nutrition levels. I don’t want our pasture to become like the hay fields below which was once a haven for deer and now they avoid the area. The rancher did the same thing year after year creating an imbalance.


Some might say we, ‘put the cart before the horse’ in that we figured which animals would best suit our needs and not what animals would best suit the food available in our pastures. I can not argue that. All we know at present is that we can not sustain beef on our pasture.

It is a bit more complicated than just changing out species though. Within species you have varieties such as dairy goats, meat goats, and fiber goats such as cashmere and angora, which produce mohair. This changes the nutritional needs of the animal. Fiber animals need more protein. Then there’s what stages are they in such as lactation, gestation, growth, or fattening which changes nutritional needs also.

Sounds complicated doesn’t it? It is! But first, I’m just going to start with the basics like cattle and sheep complement each other in grazing situations since they have only moderate dietary overlaps, and we don’t have enough pasture for beef and work up to complicated. To oversimplify by tearing out the pasture and planting one type of grass is to deny the nutritional benefit of diversity. The benefit to the soil of diversity. We are what we eat and if we eat meat, we are what the animal eats too. So I’ll keep studying. Meanwhile, I’d best get a move on literally. Our oldest daughter just bought a house and her and I are doing the lifting until the guys are off of work on the weekend.





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