Clover and grass
Sheep grazing in Virginia
Ram eating haylage
Mixed grain ration
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
- 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
- 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,
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
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.
Learn more about what
sheep eat =>