Sheep are ruminants like cattle. They have a four-chambered stomach that lets them consume roughage like grass. But what do sheep eat aside from grass? Let’s learn about the most common types of sheep food and treats.
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What Do Sheep Eat?
Providing your sheep with a sufficient amount of essential nutrients is the key to raising a thriving flock. Let’s learn about some favorite foods of sheep and the reason behind them.
Sheep can eat many kinds of pasture plants like grass, forbs, and legumes. However, they choose forbs as their most favorite type of plant. Forbs are plants with broad leaves, and they are a nutritious choice of food for sheep.
Since sheep spend more than 8 hours outside grazing, you should provide them with high-quality green pasture. You can choose the following mixture:
- Bunch Grasses (Italian ryegrass, timothy, Perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, orchard grass)
- Legumes (birdsfoot trefoil, alsike clover, Kura clover, alfalfa, red clover, white clover)
- Sod-Forming Grasses (reed canary grass, smooth bromegrass, Kentucky bluegrass)
To get the best forage for your sheep, you need to prepare a fertile layer of soil, great forage, and adequate rainfall. These factors will depend heavily on where your farm is and the regional weather condition.
Hay is also a cost-efficient source of food for sheep. It is dried, easy to store, and convenient to use in odd climates or when the green feed is insufficient or unavailable for feeding sheep.
There is a wide variety of hay. Hay can be made from small dry pieces of grass, legumes, or herbaceous plants. While legumes contain 50 to 75% more protein and 3 times more minerals than the two remaining ones, there are little or no differences in nutrient contents among these three types of hay.
Since sheep are picky animals, they don’t like rotten, coarse, or too old hays. While lambs love legumes, adult sheep prefer grass hay.
But how much do sheep eat a day for hay?
Adult males should consume 2.2 pounds of hay per day. Ewes should eat 1.5 to 2 pounds per day, and this number can boost up to 5 pounds when milking.
In winter, a sheep should eat 5 small hay bales (which equals 4.5 pounds of hay).
3. Silage or Haylage
Haylage (or silage) is another common type of food for sheep on
commercial farms, especially inhouse adult sheep. It is a mixture of forage or grain crops to enhance sheep’s health, pasture utilization, or surplus food for sheep when there aren’t enough other feeds on farms.
Unlike hay, haylage is drier and often harvested and compressed at earlier stages. It can be used as a replacement or a supplement for hay. Occasionally, a sheep should be fed 0.5 to 0.6 pounds of haylage per day.
Sheep caretakers can choose grain as a daily type of feed for sheep. Grain is made from natural ingredients like barley, oats, wheat, maize/corn, sorghum, and other essential nutrients to keep sheep healthy.
You can use grain for pregnant ewes, ewes nursing two or more lambs, rams. Besides, grain is also suitable for lambs because it generates a genetic factor that helps lambs reach their ideal growth rate.
A moderate amount of grain is good, but too much of it can cause digestion problems for sheep. You should also increase their feeding amount gradually.
For a well-balanced daily diet, you should add cottonseed and soybean meal and 1-2% limestone as a calcium supplement to grain.
5. Different green plants
Sheep love spending all day outdoors, and they can eat various types of plants. Therefore, you should ensure to provide them with nutritious plants.
According to researchers, forages growing in temperature climate are more nutritious than those in tropical ones. Yet, as long as they are served at a vegetative state, any type of forage is equally good.
Not all plants are safe for sheep. You should be aware of feeding them some poisonous plants like cape wood, ragwort, bracken, or some toxic weeds like foxglove, oleander, rhododendrons.
What vegetable can sheep eat? Below are some of their favorite kinds of green:
- Cabbage leaves
- Bean plant
- Kale plants
- Banana peels
- Corn cobs
- Broccoli leaves
Since sheep are ruminant animals, they can be fed with by-products from food processing or crop production. Some are soybean hulls, corn gluten feed, peanut hulls, whole cottonseed, and wheat middlings. You can also feed them apples, onion, pumpkins, or any leftover/cull foods.
Wasted grains like corn – a by-product of ethanol, or leftover grains from the beer brewing industry, are another inexpensive food source for sheep and other livestock.
These by-products are often fed in dry form. However, since they contain a high level of phosphorus and sulfur, you should provide your sheep and lambs with a limited amount of them.
8. Minerals & Supplements
Apart from food, minerals are also essential for the healthy development of sheep. These supplements provide essential sheep micronutrients, like calcium, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorous, sulfur, potassium, Vitamins A, D, E, and some trace minerals like cobalt, copper, iron, iodine, iron, selenium, molybdenum, and zinc.
Minerals can be fed in the form of loose minerals or mineral blocks. Black oil sunflower seeds are another excellent source of vitamin E and other trace minerals to improve their wool quality and overall physical health.
Lacking these vitamins and minerals in an extended period can lead to serious health problems, like paralysis, stiffness, neurological issues, lameness, and White Muscle disease.
Below are further notices on some specific minerals/vitamins:
- Vitamin E & selenium: Among those minerals, Vitamin E and selenium are the two most common types sheep often lack in their daily diet. You should ask for a blood test from your veterinarian to know whether your sheep are experiencing these deficiencies.
- Calcium/phosphorus: you should feed sheep calcium and phosphorus with a 2:1 ratio to prevent urinary calculi.
What Do Sheep Eat In The Winter?
In harsh weather conditions, like during a drought or winter, sheep can be fed with stored food and supplements like hay, haylage, silage, grains, by-products like corn or barley, etc.
Sheep are more flexible than their fragile appearance. They can quickly adapt to the local weather conditions and be ready to eat whatever is available that you give them.
Sheep are ruminants and can digest roughage. They need to eat often to keep themselves warm. Therefore, you should always have plenty of stored food to use all year long.
Hay is dried grass and also the most recommended stored food for sheep in winter. On the other hand, silage (or haylage) is a fermented forage, so it must be kept in a silo or air-proof container. Otherwise, it can be moldy and cause listeriosis in sheep.
Fresh pasture and plants (or green chops) are fed to sheep in small cuts in the USA. However, this green food requires some labor effort, which is available in developing countries.
You can also reuse by-products like soybean hulls, cottonseed, peanut hulls, and gluten feed to feed sheep on long snowy days. Some fruit leftovers like apples or pumpkins are also great alternatives to pasture.
What Do Sheep Eat For Treats?
Treats can keep sheep happy or motivated. Yet, they should only consume a moderate amount of treats to prevent fatal health problems like enterotoxaemia, bloat, and urinary calculi.
You should cut or chop treats into small pieces so that sheep can easily chew them. Safe foods that you can feed them as treats include:
- Alfalfa cubes (only for female sheep)
- Sunflower seeds
Food For Baby & Older Sheep
For baby sheep
Mother milk is the essential food for a lamb in its first weeks of life.
Colostrum, or the first mother milk in the first 25 hours after delivery, provides nutrients and antibodies to help lambs get a great start while preventing them from diseases. Therefore, you should make sure that your lambs can get at least 10% of their body weight of colostrum.
When lambs are 4 to 6 weeks old, they will switch to solid food like hay, grain, and grass. This food will take up around 50% of their daily nutrient intake than their mother’s milk.
For old sheep
As sheep get older, they might have dental issues, like weak teeth or breaking teeth). Thus, tall or tough pasture grass or hay might be challenging for them.
- Providing foods that are easy for chewing
You should frequently check your senior sheep’s health to ensure they enjoy their food and get enough daily nutrient and energy intake. You can offer them hay pellets & beef pulps with high moisture or pulp & chopped hays that don’t require too much effort for chewing.
- Remove uncomfortable teeth
Besides, you should ask your vegetarian to check and remove teeth that are no longer useful or comfortable for sheep.
For your safety, never place your hand near a sheep’s molars. Old sheep have powerful jaws, and those sharp molars can cause permanent injuries for you.
- Providing enough minerals & supplements
Due to their weak chewing and digestion ability, sheep can lack essential micronutrients. Thus, you should maintain a sufficient daily mineral and supplement intake for them.
You can ask your veterinarian for some safe vitamin supplements for your livestock, depending on their needs. Additionally, you should check if they are suffering from anemia, leading to fatal health problems.
- Pay attention to their weight
Another problem in the eating behavior of older sheep is that they are easily obese if they are still fed the same diet with a lower activity level.
You can switch to a diet with higher protein to help them maintain a healthy weight. Besides, you should monitor their weight to ensure that the new diet is adequate.
What Can Sheep Not Eat?
You should not feed sheep with the following types of food:
- Animal products in any forms.
- Avocado: all parts of avocado, from fruit, leaves, bark, stems, and seeds, contain persin, which is fatal to sheep.
- Brassica plants, like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, turnips, and kale, are harmful to sheep. For example, turnips are known to cause thyroid production.
- Celery: roots and seeds of celery contain furocoumarins, which leads to photosensitization.
- Citrus: because a large amount or a frequent feed of citrus fruits like lemon, lime, or orange can cause gastric distress.
- Chocolate: this sweet treat contain theobromine, a toxin for some mammals like sheep
- Vegetables in nightshade: for example, green, immature fruits/leaves, roots/vines/any nightshade vegetable like eggplant, pepper, tomatoes, or tomatillo.
- Onions: because they can cause allergy in sheep.
- Parsley: furocoumarins in parsley leaves can cause photosensitization.
- Raw potatoes: their skin and “eyes” contain glycoalkaloids and solanine toxins. Their leaves and vines are also harmful.
- Rhubarb: while the leaves contain the highest amount of oxalic acid, you should better avoid feeding all parts of this plant to sheep.
- Un-pitted stone fruits: pits contain toxins, and they can stay in sheep’ intestines.
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1. Why do sheep eat wool?
When sheep eat wool, they might lack some trace elements like copper, iron, and zinc.
2. Why do sheep eat their placenta?
Mother sheep eat their placenta shortly as soon as it is expelled after the delivery of the last baby lamb. This behavior is an instinct of the mother sheep. She tries to protect her offspring from predators by hiding the evidence of lambing.
3. Why do sheep eat dirt?
Sheep eat dirt or lick urine or even chew some weird objects like rocks, wood, and metal because they lack salt in their daily diet.
4. Can sheep eat meat?
Sheep can’t eat meat because they are herbivorous.
5. Can sheep eat bread?
Sheep can eat a limited amount of bread as this type of food is high in fats. If fed with too much bread, sheep can be in trouble.
6. What do wild sheep eat?
Sheep in the wild often eat grasses and some low-growing plants. Besides, they also love chewing bluegrasses, wheatgrass, sedges, and fescues.
After knowing what sheep eat and the nutrient contents behind their favorite food, we understand that sheep are herbivorous, and their daily intake mainly contains grass and plants.
Besides those green foods, sheep can consume many other foods and treats. If you are a shepherd, the above information will help you keep your herd well-balanced and happy all year long.