News & Advice

Small block owners caring for sheep and goats

Apr 28, 2022 | Lifestyle Farmers, Sheep

If you own a small block and are new to owning sheep or goats, this article explains the basics. For more information  check out our other articles or talk with your local Anexa Vet.


Sheep and goats are small ruminants

Sheep and goats are a group of animals often referred to as small ruminants. Ruminants are a group of herbivore animals which have four stomachs and utilise microbial fermentation in their first stomach (rumen) to produce the majority of the nutrients they require for survival. When appropriately cared for they are hardy animals that are well suited to lifestyle farms. Regular human contact will see these animals become relatively safe and easy to handle pets that on average will reach 10-12 years of age but may live many years longer. Female sheep are called ewes, male sheep are called rams and castrated male sheep are known as wethers. Female goats are called does, male goats are called bucks or billy’s and castrated male goats are also called wethers.



What do sheep and goats eat?

As ruminants, sheep and goats are well adapted to digesting and utilising fibrous sources of vegetation such as grass, hay and silage as their sole source of food. Goats are especially well adapted and will often preferentially browse leaves, shoots and bark from trees or shrubs in their surroundings. While sheep and goats are capable of digesting more energy dense and lower fibre containing plant products such as grains/pellets, fruits and vegetables care should be taken when feeding these items. An oversupply of these feeds can lead to severe digestive disturbances that may be life threatening. As a rule fibre or roughage such as hay, silage and grass should always make up at least 30% of the diet of sheep and goats. Sheep and goats require access to unlimited amounts of clean water at all times.


What vaccinations should I give my sheep and goat?

Whilst generally hardy animals, sheep and goats require vaccinations to assist them to maintain their health. The major bacterial diseases that can be vaccinated against in sheep and goats are the clostridial diseases. These bacteria are present on all farms and cause severe disease leading to death in most cases. Sheep and goats require an initial dose of a ‘5in1’ or ‘6in1’ clostridial vaccine at 6-8 weeks of age with a booster dose 4 weeks after the initial dose. Thereafter all sheep and goats require an annual booster dose of clostridial vaccine at 12-month intervals. For pregnant ewes and does this annual booster dose should occur 4 weeks prior to expected lambing or kidding dates. Leptospirosis is another serious disease which sheep and goats should be vaccinated for. This vaccine requires an initial dose at 6 weeks of age followed by a booster vaccination 4 weeks later and then every 12 months thereafter. Leptospirosis is a disease that can be transmitted between animals and humans making it an essential vaccination to include in your animal health program in order to protect you and your family. Toxoplasmosis and campylobacter are two diseases which can cause abortions and the birth of weak lambs. There are vaccines available for both of these diseases though their use is best first discussed with your vet.


What parasites are my sheep and goats susceptible to?

Sheep and goats are susceptible to a number of different parasites including gastrointestinal worms, lice and flies. These parasites live as adults within the digestive tract of sheep and goats where they damage the surface of digestive tissues and lay eggs which are passed in manure on to the pasture. Once pasture is contaminated with worm eggs they hatch, and grazing animals ingest the infective larvae. Gastrointestinal parasites can be a cause of poor growth rates, weight loss, diarrhoea and in severe cases death. In sheep, younger animals are the most susceptible to gastrointestinal worms whilst older sheep develop limited but progressive immunity to these parasites. Goats, however, remain highly susceptible to gastrointestinal parasites throughout their life. Gastrointestinal parasite management in sheep and goats relies on monitoring animal parasite burdens through the use of faecal worm egg counts, paddock rotations to reduce pasture contamination with worm eggs and larvae as well as the use of drenches to kill worms within sheep and goats. Faecal egg counts should be carried out every 4-6 weeks during autumn, winter and spring with decisions on drenching made based on each result. Your vet can work with you on an appropriate worm management plan for your animals and property.

Sheep are particularly susceptible to fly infestation. Their dense wool fleeces and body warmth combine to make an ideal environment for flies to lay their eggs. Particularly, in areas where wool becomes moist or contaminated with urine and manure for long periods of time. These eggs hatch and produce maggots leading to the serious condition of fly strike discussed later in this article.


Common health issues in sheep and goats


Diarrhoea or scouring can be caused to a wide variety of infectious, parasitic and nutritional causes throughout the life of sheep or goat. Sheep and goats can contract bacterial and viral diarrhoea disease through contact with infected animals or contaminated feed and water. Many of the gastrointestinal worms cause diarrhoea when they infest animals at moderate to high levels. An over supply of highly digestible carbohydrates such as those present in grain, pellets milk replacer products and fruits can also stimulate diarrhoea. Diarrhoea is a serious concern as it depletes bodily stores of water, energy, protein and electrolytes particularly in young animals. Appropriate treatment firstly requires an accurate diagnosis of the cause by a veterinarian.


Pregnancy toxaemia (Twin lamb disease)

Does and ewes in late gestation may develop a condition known as pregnancy toxaemia or twin lamb disease. This condition is characterised by severe weight loss, inappetence, weakness/inability to stand and in some cases blindness. The condition occurs in late pregnancy when the supply of energy and protein to heavily pregnant animals is insufficient to meet the requirements of the ewe/doe herself and those of her developing lambs/kids. Treatment involves the use of oral and injectable energy supplements and in some cases inducing the early birth of the lambs/kids.


Facial Eczema

Facial eczema is a severe disease of goats and sheep that may occur at anytime through spring summer or autumn. It occurs when sheep or goats consume pasture contaminated with the toxin produced by a fungus that lives in dead and rotting grass material. This toxin causes liver tissue destruction which results in the animal being unable to appropriately excrete waste products from normal digestive processes. The waste products then accumulate in skin tissue where they react with sunlight to cause severe skin damage leading to swelling, pain and if untreated sloughing of the affected skin surface. Prevention involves the use of zinc administered either in drinking water, manufactured feed products or slow release internal zinc capsules. Treatment requires the use of veterinarian prescribed pain relief products, provision of shade and removal of animals from contaminated pastures.


Fly Strike

Fly strike is a severe and painful condition most commonly seen in sheep with heavy fleeces. It occurs where areas of wool that are moist, close to the warmth of the animal’s body and contaminated with substances such as urine and faeces are the sight of fly egg deposition. As these eggs hatch into the larvae/maggots they break into the skin surface and deeper muscle layers which they consume as a source of food. The resulting wounds are painful and can also become septic which may be fatal. Treatment of fly strike requires the clipping of the wool to expose the wound to drying effects of air and sunlight, the use of insecticides to kill larvae/maggots as well veterinarian prescribed pain relief and antibiotic products. Prevention of flystrike requires regular shearing/crutching particularly prior to higher risk times of the year in spring, summer and autumn. In addition, fly prevention treatments and appropriate gastrointestinal worm management to reduce faecal contamination of wool are also essential.


When to call the vet

  • Dull/lethargic/unable to stand
  • Isolation from rest of group
  • Not eating or drinking for greater than 24 hours
  • Bloated/distended abdomen
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