Indoor Housing Systems for Sheep and Goats

Dr. Brady Campbell, Assistant Professor, State Small Ruminant Extension Specialist

“What type of barn do I need to raise XXX ewes/does indoors?” This question and many others similar to it have been common place over the past year and for good reason. Take a look at the market price for any type of sheep or goat on the auction block today. Feeder lambs, fat lambs, and finished kids are bringing record prices and have continued to sustain these values well beyond the holiday season. These unique opportunities present our industry with some interesting challenges as higher feeder lamb prices make it difficult to buy and feed lambs for the finished market. It also makes it difficult to hold onto a group of replacement females when you could capitalize on the profits of the slaughter market. Additionally, cull ewes prices are up which makes culling this year easier than ever. However, what hasn’t been immediately considered is the effect of culling a large number of ewes. My question is – will this decision further complicate supply chain issues in the near future? With this background, its no wonder why my leading question is of great interest to producers from across the nation. Raising small ruminants indoors improves overall animal management, thus leading to improved efficiency resulting in more lambs and kids available for market.

Both unique and challenging for the small ruminant industry, very few operations are one in the same. In many cases, sheep and goats are an after thought when it comes to housing structures. For example, many barns that now house sheep on my families operation were once structures that housed other animals or equipment. For those that caught the article in last weeks Farm and Dairy column, the same can be said about goats as unused hog barns are also being used. Thankfully, sheep and goats are easily adaptable to many management conditions. Conversely, for those just getting into the industry or looking for designs to streamline your current production, building a new structure suited for sheep or goats may be your ticket to success. Regardless of your situation, it’s important to consider the basic needs and requirements needed for any type of housing option.

Before jumping into the basics of facility design, I believe that its important to first discuss a budget. As you develop your plan, ask yourself a few of these questions:

  • How many ewes/does would you ultimately like to house?
  • How many years are you willing to pay on this structure?
  • What is your intended market?
  • What are the pros and cons of the building you have chosen to build?
  • What environmental conditions will your selected structure be subjected to?

With these questions, we can get a strong base on how you will form your operation. For the purposes of this piece, I have been able to do a quick Google search to find some rough estimates of what barns may cost for you to build – noting that prices can change at any point. For those looking to build a standard pole barn, estimates have shown that it will cost $15 – $45/square foot. For those interested in hoop barn designs, estimates are a bit lower at $6 – $12/square foot. Although price is a large factor when considering the type of structure being built, also consider the lifespan of the materials used as well as alternative uses for the structures beyond sheep. The more versatile a structure is, the greater value it has in the long run.

Environmental control
Once you have selected the structure you would like to build, the next step is understanding how you will management the environment within the structure. Proper ventilation is key for both the health of animals housed within the barn as well as the integrity of the structure. Harold House, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Agricultural Engineer, provides a nice summary on ventilation of sheep structures. A few important pieces that he highlights in his Factsheet is heat and moisture production for sheep (Table 1) and ventilation rate for sheep (Table 2). Understanding these values will help aid in ensuring that your new facility will provide the proper ventilation for your facility, especially in the winter months when structures tend to be the most buttoned up. Ventilation can be both natural or mechanical, therefore the design of your structure will determine the infrastructure needed to ensure proper air flow. For more information on ventilation design, be sure to check out the following resources:

Facility design
The last piece of the puzzle is getting the floor plan ready for sheep or goats. The most readily available information that we have regarding spacing requirements comes from the American Sheep Industry Sheep Production Handbook that is linked above. For the purpose of the remainder of our discussion we will use the example of a 150-200 lb. ewe as our standard. In general, the area in which the ewes are housed should be set for 12-16 square feet/hd. Those ewes that have lambs should be given extra space and therefore require a bit more room at 15-20 square feet/hd. Among the many benefits of shearing ewes prior to lambing, producers can increase their stocking rate by 20% when comparing shorn with unshorn ewes.

In any type of housing system, feeder or bunk space is generally the greatest limiting factor. Depending upon the ration fed, feeder space allotment will vary. For producers feeding a TMR ration that will be consumed over the course of a days time (self-fed), ewes without lambs require 4-6 inches of feeder space whereas ewes with lambs require slightly more feeder space at 6-8 inches. For those operations that don’t have the resources or ability to feed self-fed rations, feeder space per ewe must be increased (4-5 times) to allow for all ewes to eat at once (limit-fed) with a requirement of 16-20 inches per animal. As for the most important nutrient, water should always be made readily available. Depending upon the type of waterer being used, a standard watering bowl, cup, or nipple will serve 40-50 hd. If using a watering trough, a standard of 15-25 hd. per linear foot is used. In short, approximately 1 square foot of watering space/40 hd. is an acceptable standard.

Last, but certainly not least, we must account for bedding materials within indoor systems. Depending on the absorptive quality, producers have reported that the amount of straw needed can range from 0.75-1.5 lbs./hd./day. As we have previously discussed on this page before, poor quality hay may also be an option for a bedding substrate. Of course, what goes in must come out; therefore, we must consider the amount of manure that is being produced on a daily basis. According to the Sheep Production Handbook, an average of 6-7 lbs. of manure will be produced/hd./day. More recently, Amarante and others (2007), reported that there are differences in manure/waste output based upon breed. Generally speaking, these authors demonstrated that the previous manure values under estimate true manure and urine excretion of sheep. Amarante and others (2007) support that the an animal will excrete 4.5% – 5.5% of its live body weight; therefore the ewe used in our example could excrete 6-11 lbs. of waste/day. Ensuring that your facility has the capacity to hold this amount of waste within the structure as well as within an approved manure storage facility or plan will be critical.

Housing sheep and goats indoors greatly improves animal management as ration quality is more consistent and individual animal observations improve. Indoor housing systems do however come at a greater cost; therefore, evaluating the profits gained over the development and maintenance of the structure must be considered. Best of luck in your facility design and remember I am always available for a good chat regarding small ruminant production.

Happy Shepherding!