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Small ruminants

In developing countries, sheep and goats are often kept in marginal environments with scarce grazing and unfavourable climatic conditions. They are the dairy animals of the poor because of the lower capital investment and production costs required, and the animals’ rapid generation turnover (and thus earlier milk production compared with other dairy animals), short pregnancies and milk supply in quantities that are suitable for immediate household consumption (thereby reducing problems of milk storage and marketing). Women are generally more involved than men in small ruminant production.

Goats have a higher milk yield than sheep. They are considered the “poor man's cow” and are the major source of milk and meat for many subsistence farmers in tropical regions. Goats are common in arid and semi-arid areas and are generally kept in small flocks of two to ten animals. Goat milk is widely produced in West Africa but also in the Caribbean and Central Africa, usually for household consumption, although it is sometimes traded within the community. Compared with that of dairy cows, the lactation curve of goats is flatter, with a less prominent peak and greater persistency. In some cases, the lactation curve may have two peaks because of seasonal fluctuations in feed availability.

Although most dairy goats are in developing countries, breeding programmes are concentrated in Europe and North America. Genetic selection of dairy goats has resulted in considerable increases in yields and longer lactation lengths. The specialized dairy goat breeds used in developed countries therefore have higher genetic potential for milk production than breeds found in the developing world. In recent decades, specialized breeds have been exported to many developing countries and crossed with local breeds in an attempt to improve milk production. The most widely distributed dairy goat breeds are Saanen, Anglo-Nubian, Toggenburg, Alpine and West African Dwarf.

More than half of the world’s sheep population is in developing countries; sheep are more prevalent than goats in cooler climates. Sheep production has many potential outputs – milk, meat, skin, fibre and manure – but most small-scale producers in developing countries raise sheep for meat or sale as livestock at local markets.

Most sheep milk is produced in the Mediterranean region, and most dairy sheep breeds are found in this region and the Near East. The milk yield and lactation length of dairy sheep are not comparable to those of dairy cattle or dairy goats, but sheep milk production can be improved by milking stimulation (e.g., milking several times a day). Genetic selection of dairy sheep has not resulted in significant improvements in milk yield and lactation length. Dairy sheep breeds include Awassi, East Friesian and Lacaune.  

Did you know?

  • The Near East region has the highest sheep and goat milk production per inhabitant.
  • About 95 percent of the world’s goat population is in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Asia accounts for the largest share, with approximately 60 percent of the total.
  • Most dairy goat raising is in the Mediterranean region, South Asia and parts of Latin America and Africa.
  • Major goat milk producers are India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
  • In India, more than 90 percent of small ruminants are owned by landless and marginal farmers.
  • The average milk yields of goats vary significantly among major milk producing countries. In Bangladesh, the average goat milk yield is about 37 kg/year, while in India and Pakistan it is more than 100 kg/year.
  • Major sheep milk producers are China, Turkey and Greece.
  • Milk from goats contributes significant shares of total milk production in sub-Saharan Africa (12 percent) and parts of South, East and Southeast Asia (excluding China).
  • Milk from sheep is important in the Near East and North Africa (7.8 percent of total milk production) and sub-Saharan Africa (4 percent).
  • The countries with the most dairy goats are Bangladesh, India and Mali.
  • The countries with the most dairy sheep are China, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and Algeria.