Sheep 101: what sheep eat


The definitive website on homesteading and self sufficiency.




  • Welcome to Sheep 101. The purpose of Sheep 101 is to teach 4-H and FFA members, students, teachers, beginning shepherds, and the general public about sheep, their products, how they are raised, and their contributions to society. The site uses simple language and pictures to illustrate the various topics. To begin learning about sheep, click on a link in the menu bar or choose a topic from the drop down menu above.


  • About the author. The author of Sheep 101 is Susan Schoenian, Sheep & Goat Specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research & Education Center. Susan has been with University of Maryland Extension since 1988. She raises Katahdin sheep on her small farm, called The Baalands, in Clear Spring, Maryland. Susan has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Animal Science degrees from Virginia Tech and Montana State University, respectively.

  • Susan Schoenian
    Sheep & Goat Specialist
    W. MD Research & Education Center
    University of Maryland Extension
    sschoen@umd.edu - (301) 432-2767 x343
    www.sheepandgoat.com


 

Clover and grass
Clover and grass

Sheep grazing in rural Virginia
Sheep grazing in Virginia

ram eating haylage
Ram eating haylage

Mixed grain ration
Mixed grain ration

 Fenceline bunk feeder
Hampshire ewes eating grain



    What's for dinner?

  • Grass, clover, and forbs
    Mostly sheep eat grass, clover, forbs, and other pasture plants. They especially love forbs. It is usually their first choice of food in a pasture. A forb is a broad-leaf plant other than grass. It is a flowering plant Forbs are very nutritious. As compared to cattle, sheep eat a greater variety of plants and select a more nutritious diet, but less so than goats.


  • Grazing time
    Sheep will graze for an average of seven hours per day, mostly in the hours around dawn and in the late afternoon, near sunset. When supplements are fed, it is best to feed them in the middle of the day so that normal grazing patterns are not disrupted.


  • Different plants
    Sheep in different geographic areas eat different plants. Tropical forages are usually not as nutritious as those that grow in temperate climates. Protein is often the most limiting nutrient in forages. All forages are more nutritious if they are eaten in a vegetative state.


  • Pasture requirements
    The amount of pasture or range land that it takes to feed a sheep depends upon the quality of the land (soil), the amount and distribution of rainfall, and the management of the pasture. In dry climates, an acre (or hectare) of pasture or rangeland cannot feed as many sheep as an acre of pasture in a moist climate. An acre of pasture in the wet season (spring and fall) can obviously feed more sheep than an acre in the dry season (usually summer)

    Reproductive rates and lamb growth rates are lower in arid climates than high-rainfall areas that grow more plentiful forage. As a result, wool production tends to be of greater importance in these environments, as it takes less nutrition to grow good quality wool than to raise lambs and produce milk. A farmer may be able to graze ten sheep on one acre of improved pasture in Maryland, whereas one sheep could require ten acres of native range in West Texas.


  • Stored feed
    When fresh forage is not available, sheep are usually fed stored and harvested feeds: hay, silage, or crop by-products. Hay is grass that has been mowed (cut) and cured (dried) for use as livestock feed. Silage (short for ensilage) or haylage is green forage that has been fermented and stored in a silo or other system that keeps air out. Moldy silage can cause listeriosis in sheep. The pieces should be chopped smaller for sheep as compared to cattle.

    Sometimes, pasture plants are cut, chopped, and brought to the sheep. Fresh harvested forage is called green chop. This "cut-and-carry" system of feeding is common in developing countries.


  • Supplementing with grain
    Grain is often fed to sheep with higher nutritional needs, such as pregnant ewes during late gestation, ewes nursing two or more lambs, and lambs with the genetic potential for rapid growth. Grain is the seed part of cereal crops such as corn, barley, wheat, and oats.

    A protein source, such as soybean meal or cottonseed meal is usually added to the grain ration, along with vitamins and minerals to make a 100 percent nutritionally-balanced feed. Unbalanced grain rations can lead to a variety of health concerns.

    Sheep love the taste of grain and can get sick if they eat too much grain too fast. Grain consumption needs to be regulated, introduced slowly and gradually increased. Ruminants should always have some roughage in their diets. at least a pound per day for sheep. Producers in many parts of the world cannot afford to feed grain to their livestock. Whereas in some parts of the U.S. and some years, grain is a more economical source of nutrients that forage.

  • By-products
    By-products from crop production and food processing can also be fed to sheep. Examples include soybean hulls, peanut hulls, and whole cottonseed. With more corn being used in the production of ethanol, distiller's grains are becoming a more popular feedstuff for sheep and other livestock.



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