Marketing claims for sheep and goat products
Increasingly, livestock and meat producers are using production or processing claims to distinguish their products in the market place. Sheep and goat producers are no exception, as they perceive growing demands for organic, grassfed, and naturally, sustainably, and humanely-raised meat, milk, and fiber.
In the past several years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has legally defined organic, grassfed, and naturally-raised and established voluntary standards for using these labels to market agricultural products, including sheep and goat products.
In addition to USDA marketing claims, many third party entities are establishing voluntary standards for various marketing claims including grassfed, sustainably-produced, and claims pertaining to animal welfare. Third-party standards are usually fee-based.
The first marketing claim to be legally defined by USDA was organic. October 21, 2002 marked the date that the USDA organic label hit the shelves. Since then, the standards have undergone some revisions. As with most things that the federal government does, not all parties are happy with the "final" standards.
Organic standards require meat animals to be raised organically from late-gestation through harvest. Feed and bedding must be 100 percent organic. Pastures must be managed organically. Pesticides and commercial fertilizers are not allowed. Meat animals cannot be treated with antibiotics (therapeutic or sub-therapeutic), ionophores (coccidiostats), or anthelmintics (dewormers). Growth promotants (i.e. implants) cannot be used. Vaccines (biologics) are allowed.
Treatment should not be withheld from a sick animal, but once it is treated with a prohibited substance, it can no longer be labeled and marketed as organic. Ruminant livestock must have access to outside and pasture, though temporary confinement is allowed under certain circumstances. The abattoir where livestock are harvested must be certified organic.
Raising sheep and goats organically
The most challenging aspect of raising sheep and goats organically is controlling gastro-intestinal parasites (worms), the major health problem of small ruminants raised in warm, moist climates. While there are many different strategies for controlling internal parasites, successful control usually involves some use of anthelmintics (dewormers).
Ivermectin is permitted under organic standards, but cannot be given to slaughter animals, the young stock most likely to need dewormed, due to their slowly developing immunity. It also cannot be administered to ewes or does during their last month of pregnancy, the period when they are most likely to require deworming due to the periparturient rise in worm eggs.
Ivermectin is not FDA-approved for goats. Worms have developed resistance to ivermectin on many sheep and goat farms. From an industry-wide standpoint, ivermectin has been determined to be one of the least effective anthelmintics.
Currently, no herbal or other natural "dewormers" have been proven to be effective or consistently effective at controlling internal parasites in small ruminants. Several studies have demonstrated the ineffectiness of diatomaceous earth (DE) as a worm control agent. More recent studies have failed to demonstrate the efficacy of garlic, papaya, and pumpkin seeds as anthelmintics. Research continues and hopefully will eventually identify plants or other natural substances that can be used to reduce internal parasitism in small ruminants.
Copper sulfate (an "old-time" dewormer) has efficacy against worms but it can be highly toxic to sheep and is unlikely to be approved under organic standards. A fair number studies show copper oxide wire particles to be effective at reducing barber pole worm infections in lambs and kids. But will their use be approved under organic standards? Thus far, researchers have not had issues with copper toxicity, but misuse by producers could result in copper toxicity.
The best strategy to use on an organic sheep or goat farm is low stocking density, as the primary cause of internal parasitism in small ruminants is overstocking (and overgrazing). Rotational grazing systems may help or worsen parasite problems, depending upon the frequency of rotation and the length of pasture rest.
According to research conducted at Langston University (in Oklahoma), it takes approximately 60 days of rest for a heavily worm-infestive pasture to become reasonably free of infective worm larvae. Harvesting forage for hay and rotating row crops with forages will help to reduce parasite loads on the pasture. Nitrogen has larvicidal properties, but its application to pastures would not be allowed under organic standards.
Mixed species grazing is a strategy that may help to control parasites in small ruminants. This is because sheep and goats generally do not share the same parasites as cattle and horses. Small ruminants can be co-grazed with cattle or horses or a leader-follower system can be used. In additional to potential parasite control benefits, sheep, goats, and cattle have complementary grazing habits and tend not to compete for the same pasture plants. Mixed species grazing also has the potential to improve forage utilization and productivity per acre.
The condensed tannins contained in some forages have been shown to reduce fecal egg counts in small ruminants. This seems to be the case when Sericea Lespedeza, a warm season legume, is consumed as either fresh or dry forage (hay or leaf meal) by sheep and goats. Sericea Lespedeza is considered to be an invasive plant. It is classified as a noxious weed in some states.
Since 80 percent of infective parasite larvae is believed to be in the first two inches of plant growth, sheep and goats should not be allowed to graze below this point. For plant health and vigor, most forages should not be grazed below four inches. Goats and sheep that browse will have fewer problems with parasites. Because parasites require moisture to complete their life cycle, delaying grazing until the dew has lifted may help to reduce ingestion of infective worm larvae.
Breeds which are more resistant to parasites should obviously be favored on organic farms. Among U.S. sheep breeds, hair sheep (Katahdin, St. Croix and Barbado) and Gulf Coast Native sheep have demonstrated increased resistance to worms. Kiko, Spanish, Myotonic, and Pymgy goats are believed to be more resistant to worms than Boers and other goat breeds. Sheep are generally more resistant to parasites than goats.
At the same time, it's important to remember that there is as much variation within a breed as between breeds. Research has shown that approximately twenty percent of the flock (or herd) is responsible for approximately 80 percent of the egg output onto pasture. Finding and removing these animals from the flock will go a long way towards reducing pasture contamination and parasitism.
As an alternative to deworming ewes and does during late pregnancy, the protein content of the ration may be increased. Higher levels of protein have been shown to decrease fecal egg counts in periparturient ewes. Protein supplementation has been proven to reduce fecal egg count in lambs.
It is imporant to understand that organic livestock production standards are not scientifically-based, but were developed to enable producers to market their products to consumers who perceive organic foods to be more healthful and friendly to the environment. Organically-produced products can usually be sold for premium prices. In fact, they usually need to bring higher prices to offset their generally higher (often much higher) production costs.
Grass (forage) fed
On October 15, 2007, USDA issued a voluntary standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The grassfed standard states that grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. To the dismay of some, the standards allow some temporary confinement of animals and do not prohibit the use of growth promotants or antibiotics.
In my opinion, the grass-fed standards favor beef producers who have plenty of land. Forage often does not meet the nutritional requirements of high-producing animals, such as ewes and does nursing multiple births and lambs and kids with the genetic potential for high growth. For a cow that produces one calf per year, forage can easily meet her nutritional needs. Compare this with a ewe that produces two or three offspring or a doe that kids every 8 months.
The American Grassfed Association® also offers a label for grassfed products. Their standards are more stringent than USDA's. According to their standards, ruminant livestock must be on range, pasture, or in paddocks for their entire lives. They must be maintained on land with at least 75% forage cover or unbroken ground.
Their standards do not allow ruminant animals to be confined to a pen, lot, or other area where forages and crops are not grown during the growing season. Nor can livestock be fed or injected with antibiotics. No hormones of any type may be administered to livestock. The American Grassfed Association® has partnered with the Animal Welfare Approved® Program, which will provide audits for all American Grassfed Association® members at no cost.
In my opinion, the American Grass-fed Association® standards not only favor "land-rich" beef producers, but they also favor livestock producers who live in dry parts of the country. In many parts of the United States, during certain times of the year, it will be practically impossible to maintain livestock on land with 75% forage cover or unbroken land. Parasites will also be more of a challenge in the wetter, more humid regions of the U.S.
The prohibition of antibiotics and growth promotants is another requirement that I disagree with. These have nothing to do with diet and should not be included in a grass-fed marketing claim. Producers who grass feed their livestock can combine USDA's grass-fed standards with USDA's organic or naturally-raised labels, if they wish to make these marketing claims. Or they can just tell their customers.
Neither of the grass-fed marketing claims are science-based, but like the organic standards they give producers a way to market their products to consumers who perceive grass-fed products to be more healthful and environmentally friendly. The meat and milk produced from grass-fed animals tends to be leaner and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. At the same time, altering the fat content of a concentrate diet can produce a similar nutritional profile. In addition, research done with beef cattle has shown that some concentrate feeding (on pasture) will not dimish the effects of a grass (forage) diet.
Raising grassfed sheep and goats
Strategies for raising grass-fed sheep and goats would be similar to those discussed in the organic section, except that anthelmintics can be used to help control parasitism. Selective deworming using the FAMACHA® eye anemia system can be combined with other strategies to keep parasites to a manageable level. Breeds which are resistance to parasites should still be favored in the breeding program.
Breeds of moderate mature size and productivity should be favored over breeds with large mature sizes and high levels of reproduction, as their nutritional needs are more likely to be met by an all-forage diet. Many grass-fed producers remove triplet lambs and kids for artificial rearing. It is difficult to finish a large-frame lamb on pasture.
Naturally-raised is the newest marketing claim to be legally defined by USDA. Previously, natural only refer to the processing of agricultural products: i.e. minimal processing and no artificial ingredients. The naturally-raised standards were published in the January 19, 2009, Federal Register. The naturally-raised marketing claim prohibits antibiotic use, use of growth promotants, and the feeding of animal by-products. However, it allows ionophores to be fed to prevent coccidiosis. Anthelmintics (dewormers) may also be administered for worm control. Vaccines are allowed.
While the inclusion of ionophores disapoints some people, I applaud USDA for allowing their use. Ionophores are not traditional antibiotics. They are not used in human medicine; thus, antiobitic resistance issues are a mute point. Nor are they synthetically produced.
In sheep and goats, ionophores (Bovatec® and Rumensin®) are approved as coccidiostats, not growth enhancers. There is a zero day withdrawal. However, if ionophores are used, the resulting product must be clearly identified with a statement that no antibiotics other than ionophores were used to prevent parasitism.
With the exception of not being able to treat a sick animal with an antibiotic and still market it as naturally-raised, I like the naturally-raised label because this is how most sheep and goat producers already raise their livestock.
Animal welfare advocates and environmentalists tend to have less issue with the sheep and goat industry than animal industries that confine animals and routinely feed antibiotics and administer growth-promoting implants. Most sheep and goats are raised on pasture, at least part of the lives. In the majority of production systems, they get to express their natural behavior.
On the other hand, most sheep and goat producers do treat sick animals with antibiotics. If an animal is treated with an antibiotic, it cannot be sold under the naturally-raised marketing claim. While some sheep and goat feeds contain antibiotics (to prevent diseases) and some producers use them, the use of non-medicated feeds will not impact the sheep and goat industry like it will other animal industries that use sub-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks.
Ralgro® implants are approved for use in lambs, but are seldom used because they increase the incidence of rectal prolapses in lambs, especially ewe lambs. Ralgro® is not approved for use in goats. Instead of relying on growth promotants, many sheep and goat producers leave their male offspring intact. Male offspring grow faster and more efficiently then females and wethers. The ethnic markets often prefer entire males. An alternative to intact males would be to make short-scrotum males.
It is already against the law to feed ruminant meat-and-bone meal to other ruminants. Few producers feed any other animal product to their sheep and goats. Almost all sheep and goats consume all-vegetatarian diets (unless they steal the guardian dog's food!).
Coccidiostats are routinely feed to sheep and goats. In addition to preventing coccidiosis, they have numerous other health benefits. Fortunately, the USDA saw fit to allow their use under the naturally-raised marketing claim.
USDA analyzed over 44,000 comments from producers, processors, consumers and other interested parties in development of the naturally-raised standard. There were three core criteria identifed: no antibiotics, no growth promotants, and no animal by-products in the feed.
Animal Welfare Claims
Increasingly, the American public is concerned about the welfare of animals on farms and ranches. Some consumers have expressed a willingness to pay more for products that they believe have been produced under certain standards of animal welfare. So far, all animal welfare marketing claims are third-party issued.
Certified Humane Raised and Handled®
The Certified Humane Raised and Handled® Program's animal care standards were developed by a committee of scientists and veterinarians with expertise in farm animal issues. As with most other labels, the use of growth promotants and sub-therapeutic antibiotics is prohibited.
Livestock must be free to move and not confined. Shelter is required on pasture. Instead of banning docking, castration, and disbudding, the standards stipulate how these practices should be carried out to minimize pain and stress.
Overall, I find the Certified Humane standards (sheep, goat) to be very reasonable and consistent with the way most producers already raise their animals. For producers that are selling sheep and goat products to socially-conscience consumers, the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label may be worth its fee.
Animal Welfare Approved®
The Animal Welfare Approved® Program claims to have the most rigorous standards (sheep, dairy sheep, goat, dairy goats) for farm animal welfare of any U.S. organization. While the organization probably means this to imply they provide the best living conditions for farm livestock, I simply find the the standards to be the most restrictive and least science-based.
Animal Welfare Approved® standards do not allow lambs to be docked. While it's not necessary to dock hair sheep lambs or lambs with short rat-tails, it is a sound management practice to dock the tails of most wooled lambs. Tail docking improves the health and welfare of lambs. It does not detract from it. Research shows that tail docking reduces the incidence of fly strike (wool maggots) while having no detrimental effect on lambs.
Instead of prohibiting tail docking, the standards should stipulate that the tails of wooled lambs be banded between 1 and 7 days of age or be removed using an electric docker (at an older age). The standards should require docked tails be left long enough to cover the vulva of female sheep and a similar length in male sheep.
Under the current standards, it is permissible to disbud a goat before it is 10 days old. That's good. But the practice is still under review and may be prohibited in the future. Let's hope not. Horned goats can cause injury to people and each other. They can get their heads stuck in feeders and fences. They are more difficult to handle. Many people handle goats by their horns, often out of necessity, but this is in contrast with low-stress livestock handling techniques.
Requiring a sheep and goat's diet to be 70 percent (long) roughage has no basis in science or welfare and may fail to meet the nutritional requirements of high-producing animals. In fact, it's often necessary to restrict the forage intake of females nursing triplets or producing a similar amount of milk for dairy purposes.
Requiring that ewes be 18 months of age before they produce their first lambs is a requirement with no basis in science or welfare. In reality, due to the seasonal nature of sheep, this means that most ewes will be 2 years of age before producing their first lambs. For breeds that sexually mature at a young age, breeding at 7 to 9 months of age is in no way detrimental to their health and well-being. In fact, size (weight) is far more important than age when determining when to breed a ewe (or doe) for the first time.
The standards should have stipulated that ewe lambs achieve at least 70 percent of their mature weight before being exposed for breeding and that they be fed and managed separately from mature females until they wean their first set of offspring. Goats are allowed to produce offspring by the time they are 13 months of age. This is good. The same standard should apply to sheep, as many sheep breeds mature as quickly as goats. The standards fail to recognize the genetic diversity among sheep breeds.
Weaning lambs and kids before 90 days of age is not inhumane. Just ask the ewes and does! There is no research to support this requirement. A ewe's milk production peaks 3 to 5 weeks after lambing. It is not necessary to bottle feed lambs and kids for more than six weeks, so long as they are eating dry feed and have acheived sufficient size (weight).
As an extension sheep and goat specialist and long-time producer, I would not recommend that any sheep or goat producer seek certification from the Animal Welfare Approved® Program. There are better ways to acheive a high level of animal welfare on a sheep and goat farm than to adopt these standards.
American Humane Certified® is another voluntary, fee-based service available to producers of animals in agriculture. The program provides independent, third party audited verification that the care and handling of animals on enrolled farms meet the animal welfare standards set forth by American Humane Certified.
Producers who meet the standards may use the American Humane Certified label on their products. There are up to 200 check points that an auditor measures for each species. Currently, the American Humane Certified® web site does not give standards for sheep and goats. Thus, it's not possible to evaluate the appropriateness of their standards.
I think that it is important to note that sheep and goats that are marketed under one of the animal welfare labels are not raised more humanely than livestock sold without such claims or labels. Having a label only means that you are raising your livestock according to the standards established by the party that is issuing the label and that you are willing to pay the fee required to use the label. It's just a label.
Food Alliance is a nonprofit organization that certifies farms, ranches, and food handlers for sustainable agricultural and business practices. It started as a project of Oregon State and Washington State universities and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Food Alliance certified businesses are audited by an independent third-party inspector to determine whether they meet program standards and criteria.
Food Alliances' farm standards (sheep and goat inspection tool) address soil and water quality, reduced pesticide usage and toxicity through integrated pest management, safe and fair working conditions, wildlife habitat protection and healthy and humane animal treatment.
According to the inspection tool for sheep and goat meat and/or fiber production, sub-therapeutic antiobitics and growth promotants are prohibited under the standards. While artificial insemination is permitted, hormones cannot be used to synchronize estrus. Animal by-products of any kind are prohibited as a feed source. Animals over 60 days of age may not be treated with antibiotics and sold as Food Alliance Certified. Food Alliance has offices in Oregon, California, Minnesota and Pennsylvania and, through a third party verification process, certifies farms, ranches, food processors and distributors.
In lieu of seeking certification from USDA or third parties, I encourage sheep and goat producers to describe their farm and production practices to their customers. You don't have to have a certified-humane label on your meat, fiber or dairy products for your customers to understand that your animals are humanely and naturally-raised, handled, and processed. Nor is a grass-fed label necessary for your customers to know that your livestock are raised predominantly on pasture and consume a mostly forage diet. Sheep and goat production is already environmentally friendly and animal welfare strong. We don't need labels to tell our story.
References and further reading
Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) @ National Ag Library
Compendium of Animal Health & Welfare in Organic Farming - UK
Grass-fed marketing claim standards - USDA AMS | Federal Register
[PDF] Grass-fed standards for ruminants - University of Arkansas
National Organic Program
[PDF] NCAT's Organic Livestock Workbook: a Guide to Sustainable and Allowed Practices
[PDF] Organic livestock production and marketing - Center for Environmental Farming Systems
Organic livestock requirements - USDA AMS
[PDF] Requirements for organic livestock in the United States
[PDF] Specialty meat marketing claims: what's the difference? - University of Florida
This article was originally written in 2009 by Susan Schoenian.