Raising sheep and goats organically
Organic food sales grew more than 20 percent in the 1990's. Maryland consumers purchased more than $160 million worth of organic products in 2002. As consumer demand for organic food (and fiber) continues to grow, more producers will likely convert to organic production. USDA standards for organic food were implemented in October 2002. States administer the program. In 2001, there were 4,207 certified organic sheep farms in the U.S. The number of organic goat farms is not known.
While there are many reasons why a producer may choose to produce sheep and goats organically, the decision should not be taken lightly. Organically-produced lamb and goat is not the same as naturally-raised, free-range, or grass-fed.
Pastures must be certified organic and be maintained without the use of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or other restricted materials. Anything fed (hay, grain, pellets, milk replacer) to ewes, does, lambs, and kids must be certified organic.
Organically grown feed cannot contain synthetic hormones, antibiotics, coccidiostats (Bovatec®, Rumensin®, or Deccox®), urea, or other restricted materials. Even bedding, which may be consumed by animals, must be certified organic.
Animals intended for slaughter cannot be treated with antibiotics, anthelmintics, growth implants, or other prohibited materials. Breeding stock can be dewormed only with Ivermectin® on the basis of fecal egg counts, but not on a routine or preventative basis and not during the last third of gestation or during lactation. Ivermectin is one of the anthelmintics with the highest reported level of resistance.
Animals which must be treated with prohibited materials cannot be represented as organic. Vaccinations are acceptable. Records must be maintained on feed and health care. Identification of animals is required throughout the life cycle.
Organic standards specify living conditions for organically-raised livestock. Ruminants generally must have access to pasture, though temporary confinement is allowed if it can be justified: inclement weather, stage of production, or situations where the animals' health and safety is in jeopardy.
During processing, organic meat cannot come into contact with non-organic meat. No synthetic materials can be used during the processing of organic meat and meat products: preservatives, flavoring agents, etc.
It is generally more expensive to produce lambs, goats, fiber, and milk organically. Organic feeds are not always readily available. They tend to be much more expensive. More land is generally needed (or fewer animals must be raised) since stocking rates will probably need to be lower to aid in the control of internal parasites (worms). Internal parasites cannot necessarily be satisfactorily controlled in sheep and goats (especially young stock) under organic standards.
Before making the decision to go organic, producers should evaluate the demand for organic sheep and goat products. There is disagreement as to whether certified organic food
is any healthier than conventionally produced food or that organic practices, in general, result in healthier food products.
Individual producers need to determine whether the increased costs of organic production can be offset by higher product prices. They need to determine the local availability of organic feedstuffs and processing facilities. They need to evaluate their ability to control internal parasites in lambs and goats without the use of anthelmintics and coccidiostats.
In my opinion, the National Organic Standards can compromise the health and welfare of sheep and goats by not allowing the targeted use of anthelmintics and coccidiostats. While worms may not be as severe a problem in cattle, swine, and poultry, they are the biggest health problem faced by sheep and goat producers.
Organic standards in Europe and the United Kingdom generally allow deworming of small ruminants because they recognize that totally natural internal parasite control, while a realistic goal, is still difficult to achieve and generally compromises the welfare of lambs and goats. For most sheep and goat producers, the goal should be to reduce anthelmintic use, but not necessarily eliminate anthelmintics from their control program.
Note: While the National Organic Standards do not advocate withholding anthelmintic treatment from a severely parasitized lamb or kid that is at risk of dying, once a slaughter animal has been treated, it can no longer be marketed as organic.
Information about the National Organic Program can be found on the web at http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/.
An Organic Livestock Workbook can be downloaded from the web at http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/livestockworkbook.html.
References and further reading
Producing Lamb Organically - Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Association International
Organic Farming - ATTRA/NCAT
[DOC] Alternative parasiticides for organic lamb production - British Columbia
The Control of Internal Parasites in Ruminants - McGill University
[PDF] Managing Internal Parasites in Organic Livestock - Canadian Organic Growers
Organic Production Practices Northeastern United States - Rutgers University
This article was written in 2004 by Susan Schoenian.