Small Rumen – Big Business

The most recent findings in Stone Age settlements in southern Turkey suggest that sheep and goats stand for the origin of animal husbandry some 8000 years B.C.  Simple wool manufacturing tools, milk storage vessels and fragments of pens and stables prove the first cultural revolution of mankind, the transition of hunters and gatherers into an organized society. Today small ruminants are held in every country around the world. They represent the backbone of rural communities in many developing and emerging countries. Wool builds whole industries in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Turkey and China. Goat cheese stands for a strongly branded traditional heritage in Switzerland, France and Greece and has most recently become a lucrative niche market in the USA. The FAO ranks the importance of goats and sheep very high in projects for sustainable agriculture and rural development. The need of capital to enter the business is comparably low and production systems allow flexibility and differentiation. Also the ‘Western Countries’ are starting to re- understand that small ruminants can serve more purposes than just maintaining the landscape. Their meat is generally regarded safe and goat milk is one of the healthiest products modern agriculture can provide.

But still in the shadow of the mighty markets of poultry, pork and cattle in the global business small ruminants seldom receive any attention. Even in the feed industry that is so. Very few feed mills offer specialized programmes for sheep and goats. In the cost intensive registration procedures of feed additives and veterinary therapeutics small ruminants hardly find attention.

Producers have to ask for expensive custom solutions or choose something from the dairy and beef range – which sometimes may not be quite so legal. Often sheep feeds simply are made beef feeds but in small pellets. There is very little differentiation between the specific needs of sheep and goat farmers and their specific breeds and there is even less attention paid to the single production stages of breeding, raising, finishing and wool or milk production. For example; because sheep are sensitive to copper, goats fed on sheep diets run into deficiency problems.

Because little is done to understand ruminal disorders in high performing dairy goats we observe the same feeding mistakes and problems as we do with dairy cows. In wool production we know about the role of available trace elements and amino acids but generally it is still a black box. The growth curves we use are based on figures dating back to the 60s. Of the very little research that is done on small ruminants only very few results find implication in practice. Vaccination campaigns are only pushed through when the diseases of sheep threaten cattle and dairy cows. This is a mistake. It is a phenomenon in the industrialized world. It is based on the general perception against anything small: ‘A goat is the small mans cow’, ‘Sheep use the patches of land left over by cattlemen’ and so on. In contrast an Eastern Africa saying states: ‘A goat man is a man, a camel man is only half a man but a cattle man is not a man at all.’   – Obviously the other extreme.

Now, Leaving all useless prejudice and trenches behind allow me to ask: What have you done for your small ruminant customers recently?