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Sheep and goat production in Egypt

July 1996 - - I catch a full glimpse of the pyramids as my plane descends into Cairo. It is 6:50 PM, July 26, 1996. I am about to embark on a month-long, volunteer assignment with ACDI/VOCA. I have butterflies in my stomach. I am filled with excitement and anticipation. I have wanted to go to Egypt, since I was a small child.

It takes almost an hour to get from the airport to the hotel in Giza, within walking distance of the three giant pyramids. Cairo, a city of fourteen million people, is bustling with activity. I enjoy the ride. I can't wait to get to work.

Bedouin Sheep Farmers

Sheep and goat project

Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Appropriately, some aid is directed towards agriculture. ACDI's Farmer-to-Farmer program targets "core" farmers in different governorates (provinces) and commodity areas, with the overall goal of increasing private investment and improving productivity and profitability in the agricultural sector.

ACDI, "Agriculture Cooperative Development International" and VOCA, "Volunteers Overseas Cooperative Assistance," are non-profit, sister organizations that cooperate to send U.S. volunteers, such as myself, on short-term overseas assignments.

My job with ACDI/VOCA is to serve as a sheep and goat nutrition specialist. My partner is a "retired" veterinarian from Minnesota. Together, with our ACDI field representatives/translators, we visit two to three farms per day. We conduct seminars and village meetings for farmers, veterinarians, extension agents and university professors. We also make recommendations for a veterinary clinic/quarantine facility that is to be built at the edge of the Western Desert, where sheep and goats from different regions meet and the spread of disease is of great concern.

Land, water and people

From the Nile River, sprang one of the world's greatest civilizations. Ninety-five percent of Egypt's sixty million people live along its banks. It is their lifeline, supplying 95 percent of the country's water needs. The High Dam in Aswan in Upper Egypt (south), built with the help of the Soviets, made it possible to grow three crops in one year.

Most of Egypt is covered by desert. Rainfall is sparse. Winter is the "rainy" season. Less than four percent of the land is cultivated, though each year, additional desert land is brought under cultivation. There is a special program where college graduates (of any degree major) receive a small parcel of land and a house to begin farming. There is even a program to start women in farming. "Graduate" farmers receive special consideration and assistance from ACDI and the Ministry of


We spend our first two weeks in the Delta, staying in Ismailia--on the Suez Canal--and Tanta--in the heart of the Delta. When the Nile River flows north through Cairo it splits into two branches before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Between the two branches is the Delta region, where along with the Nile River Valley, you'll find very fertile farm land and among the highest crop yields in the world.

The Delta is served by a conglomeration of irrigation ditches and canals. It is quite common to see fields of green in the middle of the desert. Crops include cotton, rice, corn, wheat, barley, sorghum, tomatoes, cucumbers, mangos, figs, dates, bananas, melons and cactus fruit. There never seems to be a shortage of fruits or vegetables in the market place. Berseem clover, grown in the winter, is the primary forage crop.

My favorite place is Mersa Martruh, 180 miles west of Alexandria, on the north coast en route to Libya. Alexandria is an ancient city, Egypt's second largest, founded by Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago. Mersa Martruh, famous for its beautiful beaches and turquoise water, is a city that instantaneously captures my heart with its carefree lifestyle and lively atmosphere. We spend two weeks making farm visits from Alexandria and Martruh.

Eighty percent of the sheep and goats are raised in the Matrouh governorate in the Western Desert. Bedouins, "semi-nomadic" Arabs, many of whom can trace their roots to the hordes who fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, are the shepherds in this region. It is their tradition to tend livestock in the desert. They are good at it.

While farmers in the Delta and New Lands struggle with sheep and goat husbandry--parasite burdens and lack of grazing land--Bedouins seem to have a special knack for raising stock. Their sheep, goats, water buffalo and cattle are generally healthy and well-fed. In fact, some of the lambs I see in the desert are as good as any "blue" lambs I handled as a USDA livestock grader.

I enjoy the time we spend with the Bedouins, discussing sheep, breaking bread and drinking tea. I gain a special appreciation for their culture and simple way of life. Their family unit is very strong. All of the sons and their families farm together. Bedouins are a fiercely independent people. Unfortunately, many tribes have been re-settled by governments, and their culture is slowly slipping away.

Sheep breeding

The three main breeds of sheep in Egypt are Rahmani, Osseimi and Barki. Rahmani is the largest breed, easily identifiable by its red wool and small ears. The Osseimi is slightly smaller, with white wool. Barki is the smallest breed, with white wool and a brown neck. Purebred Barki is the breed of choice for Bedouins in the desert. All are fat-tailed sheep. What distinguishes fat-tailed sheep from other sheep is their long tails, filled with fat and having a function similar to the camel's hump.


Fat-tailed sheep are hardy and adaptable, able to withstand the tough challenges of desert life. When feed is ample and parasites not burdensome, fat-tailed sheep can be impressive in size, growth, and conformation. Carcass quality is good, with most of the fat concentrated in the tail region. The carcass and meat are preferred by Moslems.

The wool from fat-tailed breeds is coarse and frequently has colored fibers. It would be of limited value in world markets. It is used primarily for rug making and other cottage-type industries. Some shepherds sell their wool clip, while others give it away to the shearer. The Bedouin women make beautiful rugs and blankets from the wool. Some of their handiwork can be purchased in the villages.

Shearing is done once or twice a year with hand clippers. There is a reluctance to use electric shears because of wool quality and the difficulty in getting replacement combs and cutters.With the tropical climate, sheep and goats breed year-round, typically producing three crops in two years.
Twinning is common in goats, but quite variable in sheep, with considerable room for improvement.

Some shepherds have only a few sets of twins, while others claim to have a majority of twin births. Limited selection is practiced for reproductive rate. Given the difficult environmental conditions, not all farmers are convinced they want multiple births. Nonetheless, we encourage selection for twins, as reproductive rate is one of the most important factors affecting profitability.

Rams typically run with ewes all year round, making it difficult for farmers to plan breedings, flush ewes and feed according to stage of production. Some of the better farmers have started to separate rams and have defined breeding seasons.Sheep are inbred, which depresses performance and fixes negative traits in the flock.

Our recommendations are for farmers to exchange rams and increase crossing among the three local, fat-tailed breeds. We also suggest crossing with outside breeds such as the Awassi (an improved Israeli breed), but only if the breed is adapted to the desert. Other breeds have been tried and failed in this environment. The Ministry of Agriculture is doing some crossing with Finn and Romanov to increase lambing rate.

Flock size ranges from just a few to hundreds of animals. Desert flocks tend to be much larger than flocks in the Delta and New Lands. Bedouins living in a tribe will run all of their animals together.



Most farmers run sheep and goats together. But unlike sheep, goats are not considered an economic enterprise. They are "clean up" animals, kept primarily for the family's benefit. Meat production is the primary objective, though some milking is done, to provide fresh milk for children. Many farmers have no interest in improving production from their goats.

Nubian is the most common breed of goat. However, they are different from the Anglo-Nubians that we raise here in the States. Other goats are local, desert breeds, not as good as the Nubian, which is indigenous to North Africa. We observe some crossing with the Damascus, a big, long-haired goat from Syria. In general, the goats are of good meat type.

Like sheep, the goats are generally inbred. We see genetic defects and believe that crossing would pay huge dividends in terms of the hybrid vigor. We encourage crossing with the Anglo-Nubian and Swiss breeds to improve milk production and create an additional source of income for the family. We feel that many of the farmers, especially the Bedouins, have the management skills necessary to raise dairy goats.


Nutrition and health

The major problem facing sheep and goat farmers is lack of feed. While Egypt produces some of its own feed grains, with only 97% of its land arable, it must import to meet its needs. During the winter when it rains, the sheep graze the open desert. In the Delta, berseem clover provides ample grazing. There are no fences. Sheep are face branded to keep ownership straight.


During the summer, green feed is scarce and concentrate feeding is common. Sheep are brought from the Western Desert to the Delta to graze crop residues, ditches and any other forage or fodder that can be found. Egyptian farmers are adept at utilizing feed resources. Common feedstuffs include the corn plant, wheat and barley straw, and pelleted feeds.

Purchased feedstuffs are expensive and not always readily available. There seems to be an over-reliance on low-quality, "one-kind-fits-all" pellets. It is our assertion that the farmers could feed their sheep better and more economically by mixing whole grains (corn, barley and sorghum) with protein supplements.

Grain is very expensive, relative to here, but it provides more nutritive value for its cost than the pellets. Due to the large amount of cotton growing, cottonseed meal is generally available and inexpensively priced relative to energy feeds. Fava beans are also used to increase protein. Berseem clover, cut at the proper stage, is an excellent source of protein.


Health problems are similar to what we experience in the Mid-Atlantic states, with internal parasites being the most common problem in all livestock. The Delta and Nile River Valley provides a fertile breeding ground for gastrointestinal worms. Anti-parasitic drugs are expensive, but generally available.

Liver flukes are a problem, even with humans who drink water from the Nile and wash their clothes and dishes at its banks. Coccidiosis is a fairly common occurrence.We recommend vaccinating for enterotoxemia (overeating disease), a worldwide problem with sheep and goats. Since ewes lamb more often than once a year, they need to be vaccinated before each lambing. We recommend vaccinating lambs at six and eight weeks of age. Earlier vaccinations may interfere with colostral immunity.

Some producers indicate problems with white-muscle disease. When cutting open dead lambs, they observe white striations in the muscles. Most are not feeding a vitamin/mineral supplement to their animals. We recommend they do so to prevent white muscle disease and other possible deficiencies. If mineral supplementation is not available, we suggest injections of Vitamin E/selenium. Some flock owners have experienced high levels of abortions. Brucellosis is diagnosed in one flock and vibriosis (campylobacter) is probable in others. We recommend vaccination in these cases.

I see my first case of foot and mouth disease. This disease has been absent from the United States for many years. Sheep with foot and mouth disease have lesions on their hooves, mouths and gums. They are lame and have high temperatures. Eventually, the disease runs its course. It is more devastating to cattle and buffalo than sheep and goats.

Several years ago, Egypt had a major outbreak of foot and mouth. Widespread vaccination is done when there is a threat of another disease outbreak. Deworming, vaccinating and artificial insemination (for buffalo and cattle) is done mostly by veterinarians. Most villages have pharmacies that carry both human and animal medicines. The farmers in a village share farm machinery.

Marketing and economics

Islam is the official religion in Egypt, although a ten percent minority of Christians and Jews peacefully co-exist. Because Egypt is an Islamic country, sheep and goat marketing is influenced to a large extent by religious traditions. While goats seem to be eaten year round, lambs are consumed primarily at holidays. We are told that the "feast" marking the end of Ramadan (month of fasting) accounts for sixty percent of total lamb consumption. Lambs are also exported to other Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia, with Bedouins being the major supplier for this market.

The typical market sheep in Egypt is a live animal weighing 40 to 50 kg (88 to 110 lbs.). It ranges in age from five to twelve months, depending upon its diet. Some lambs are fed concentrate, while others are range fed. Rams are seldom castrated. Fat-tailed sheep are not docked. Moslems prefer to do their own slaughtering, which is done in Halal fashion. Lambs and goats are sold in open air village markets, herded to market or brought in pick-up trucks or donkey carts.

Prices are determined by the bartering system. There are no auctioneers. In fact, most prices in Egypt can be negotiated, a Middle Eastern custom that unfortunately many Americans are not comfortable with. Lambs are sold as feeder lambs, as fat lambs for the feast, or simply when the farmer needs to generate cash to pay for feed, medicine or other inputs.

Lamb and goat meat can be purchased in village meat stores or along the roadways. Some farmers butcher their stock along side the road and hang the carcasses for passers-by to see. To buy meat, you tell the farmer how much meat and what part of the carcass you want. It may take twenty minutes to agree upon a price.


Lamb prices average over a dollar a pound, so despite high feed prices, sheep raising can be profitable. As in the U.S., some farmers purchase feeder lambs and fatten them out for market. This seems to be a profitable activity for many farmers. Because the cost of living in Egypt is so much less than in the U.S., it is possible for families to survive off of the income produced from a small flock and small holdings of land.

The agricultural industry is undergoing significant change as the country moves closer towards privatization and free markets, presenting additional challenges to sheep and goat farmers.

Looking back

It has been my privilege to travel to many different countries; this was my fifth international assignment. While I have found people everywhere to be friendly and gracious, nothing can match the hospitality, sense of humor and generally fun-loving spirit of the Egyptian people. I don't remember ever laughing so hard.

Having traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, not having vodka constantly pushed at me was a welcomed relief. Moslems don't drink alcohol. If fact, they don't seem to have many of the same social problems as we have in the United States. We could learn a lot from their culture.

I did the tourist thing and rode a camel around the pyramids. I visited museums and saw some of Egypt's most famous antiquities. I rode a donkey. I fell off a donkey. I counted donkeys. In fact, I've never seen so many donkeys in all my life..I stood in Asia. The Sinai is the Asian part of Egypt, where Africa and Asia meet. It was once occupied by Israeli forces.

I saw the monument to the 1973 October War. Believe it or not, an extension agent was a famous war hero. I was in El-Alamein, where the Allies handed the Germans one of their worst defeats during World War II. I steered a boat through the Suez Canal. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea. I realized that I could become a beach bum, if only the Atlantic Ocean was as clear and blue as the Mediterranean.

As with all previous international assignments, I came home with a sense of accomplishment. As always, I gained as much as I gave. I learned as much as I taught. I have appreciation for another country, its people, language, culture and religion. This experience will serve me well in work . . . and life.

This article was written in 1996 by Susan Schoenian.

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