Foraging Behavior- S&G Part 1

a goat nibbles on a tall weed while sheep graze on grass in the background
Did you know sheep and goats have different forage preferences and behaviors? Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / The Ghosts In Our Machine / We Animals Media

Some ruminants are grazers, others are browsers, and some are a mix of both. Grazers, such as cows, consume mostly grasses, while browsers (or concentrate selectors) seek out highly nutritious and easy-to-digest plants. Intermediate feeders fall somewhere in between grazers and browsers. There is some debate as to which category sheep and goats fall into- depending on the source, sheep are classified as grazers or intermediates, and goats are classified as intermediates or browsers. When both sheep and goats are classified as intermediates, there is still an acknowledgment that sheep are more grazers than browsers and goats are more browsers than grazers. Regardless of which category they most accurately fit into, the fact of the matter is that sheep and goats have different foraging behaviors and preferences from each other and these preferences should be considered when determining the best diet to provide to them. To keep things simple, going forward we are going to refer to sheep as grazers and goats as browsers. 

Sheep primarily eat grasses and forbs (herbaceous broadleaf flowering plants, including legumes) which typically make up pastures. They often seek out forbs first when grazing. While goats also eat grasses and other pasture plants, these are not their preferred food, nor is a diet consisting primarily of grasses natural for them as browsers. If available, over 60% of their diet will consist of browse (twigs and leaves from woody plants, vines, brambles, shrubs, and trees). Goats typically prefer browse over grass and grass over legumes. They also eat a wider variety of plants compared to sheep.

Different sources offer slightly different breakdowns of the make-up of sheep and goat diets, but the general idea is the same- when given the opportunity, goats will primarily select browse and sheep will primarily select pasture plants. Below is one example of forage selection of sheep and goats to highlight the difference between the two:

Percentages from Grazing preferences of Sheep and Goats by Randy Saner, Nebraska Extension Educator

The difference between sheep, as grazers, and goats, as browsers, goes beyond just their preferred forages. It also manifests in how they forage. As predominantly grazers, sheep forage with their head down for the majority of the time and will often eat pasture all the way down to the ground. Goats, on the other hand, eat plants higher up off the ground, sometimes even standing up on their hind legs to reach desired browse. We’ll talk more about Barber Pole worm in Part 2, but it’s important to point out that this difference in foraging behavior seems to have affected how sheep and goats have evolved in terms of resistance to certain parasitic infections. Overall, sheep tend to develop a stronger immune response to barber pole worm infections than goats. If allowed to browse, goats would be exposed to far fewer of these parasites than what sheep would be exposed to, so they may not have developed the same type of immune response as sheep, leaving them more vulnerable in settings where they have to graze on pasture for the bulk of their food.

Some other differences between sheep and goat foraging behaviors and preferences are that goats prefer foraging on rough and steep terrain rather than flat, even terrain, and they tend to graze along fence lines before grazing in the center of a pasture and tend to travel further in search of their preferred forages.

Food Requirements For Different Animals | Noble Research Institute NC

Let’s Ruminate On It | Sheep 101

Sheep and Goat Medicine NC

Characteristics Of Grasses, Legumes, And Other Forbs | Oregon State University

Characteristics Of Browse Plants For Goats And Sheep | ACSRPC NC

Grazing preferences of Sheep and Goats | Nebraska Extension NC

Goat Pastures Considerations | Goat Extension