Sheep are a very self-sufficient type of livestock to have on the homestead, and, like goats, they are excellent browsers.
Even though sheep can eat a wide variety of hay, grass, and human food, there are some types of natural and man-made items that consuming can provoke a severe health issue – or worse…
Well, the primary diet of sheep should be hay. They are ruminant animals, so their digestive system is pretty different from ours. Like cattle, goats, elk, and deer, sheep have four stomach chambers.
When their stomach gets out of whack because they have consumed too much of the right thing or even small amounts of the wrong thing too often, they can suffer bloat and other related significant medical issues.
In terms of nutritional profile, sheep require balanced amounts of both macronutrients (such as protein and fiber), as well as micronutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, manganese, copper (in moderation due to poisoning), selenium, and cobalt.
Word of advice: be sure to maintain a 2:1 calcium to phosphorous ratio in their diets. Though they can tolerate a ratio of up to 7:1, you’ll lower your risk of something bad happening if you aim for the recommended ratio.
Many of the foods and snacks below have various combinations of these, but keep in mind all snacks should be given in moderation (either because they may have high sugar content, or for some other reason).
Of course, don’t forget about water. Your animals should have water at their discretion at all times, including during winter.
Best Hay for Sheep to Eat
Not all hay is created equal. The type of hay that is planted on your homestead or purchased to feed the herd of sheep matters a great deal due to the massive impact it can have on it.
Sheep nearly always prefer to eat only fine hay that is leafy. Alfalfa tends to be their favorite, in my personal experience, but it may be a bit too calcium rich for them. It’s also a little high in protein and sugar, so don’t let them eat too much of!
Mature sheep can garner most of the nutrients they need to remain healthy when grazing in a field of leafy alfalfa hay or even grass hay that has not yet matured.
Lambs have different dietary needs than sheep and they will grow more robustly and remain in better health when offered a quality mature legume hay. They will also eat it more easily due to the fine and softer stems the hay produces.
1. Orchard Hay
This type of hay grows really tall during cool weather seasons. Orchard Grass is high in fiber, but low in protein when compared to some other top varieties of hay.
The flat leaf blades on orchard grass vary in shade from blue-ish to green, depending on the maturity of the hay crop when it is harvested.
Orchard hay typically contains 7% protein, 30% crude fiber, one to one and a half percent crude fat, and a moisture content maximum of roughly 15%, when harvested and baled properly.
2. Alfalfa Hay
Lucerne, or alfalfa hay, is a legume-style high fiber and vitamin A-rich hay. Alfalfa contains more calcium and protein thangrass hays. The fiber strands in alfalfa are longer than those found in grass hays, as well.
Sheep that consume alfalfa typically are garnering 120% more energy from their meal than they would if eating an oat hay variety.
The average nutrient content in alfalfa include a 15% to 21% crude protein, 32% crude fiber, 1 and a half percent crude fat, and only roughly 15% of each properly harvested bale of hay is comprised of moisture.
3. Timothy Hay
Timothy is another top-quality hay to feed sheep and other livestock. This is the type of hay that thoroughbred horses are often fed. This hay offers a high forage diet, which often includes perennial grass bunches.
This type of hay offers a quality balance of both protein and energy-producing nutrients. Timothy hay typically is comprised of seven to 11% protein, 32% crude fiber, one and a half percent crude fat, and when harvested properly it, like alfalfa hay, has about a 15% moisture ratio.
4. Bluegrass Hay
This type of hay is a lot better for horses than for sheep or goats. It is lower in protein and energy producing nutrients than alfalfa hay, but is higher in fiber content.
5. Cereal Grain (Like Oat or Straw)
Sheep and other varieties of livestock tend to love cereal grain hay because it is sweet. Oat hay offers a high percentage of carbohydrates, high fiber content, but is low in protein.
Because sheep will consume the entire leaf and stem of each blade of oat hay, there is nearly nothing wasted from the plant.
Oat cereal hay contains approximately 9% crude protein. This type of hay is also a rich source of zinc, manganese, and phosphorus. A mixture of oat hay and alfalfa at a 1 to 5 ratio is often recommended for sheep and other ruminants.
6. Lesser Grass Hays
The most common livestock grass hay varieties include Bermuda, ryegrass, brome, and fescue. This type of grass hay is often cheaper to purchase than alfalfa, orchard, or Timothy hay.
Bermuda hay has a crude protein level of approximately 7% to 10%, a crude fiber content of roughly 28%, and a 43% calcium level.
As with all types of grass hays, Bermuda has lower digestible energy content and protein levels than other top types of legume style livestock hay varieties.
Other Things Sheep Can Eat
Treats, even healthy ones, should be fed to sheep only in small amounts on an occasional basis. I use healthy snacks to train our free-ranging herd to come to the barn for put up, and to prepare them for handling during shearing, hoof trimming, and for medical treatment.
Grain feed should also only be given as a small supplement to a healthy hay-based diet. I use an All Stock variety that can be fed to the rest of our animals for the sake of expediency, safety – so no one accidentally gives out the wrong feed to the wrong animal.
Buying feed in bulk from an agricultural supply store instead of just picking up one or two bags a week can save a lot of money over the course of the year.
You do not necessarily have to buy healthy snacks for your herd of sheep, you can grow them. Many plants and herbs are not only incredibly healthy treats for sheep, but may also be basing ingredients in any herbal mixes you make to bolster the animal’s immune system, treat inflammation, easy birthing pain, and to deter worms and other parasites.
Healthy Snacks Sheep Can Eat
|Grapes||Mint (including peppermint) – in small amounts|
|Dill||Crabapple Tree Leaves|
|Marshmallow Herb Plant||Graham Crackers – in extreme moderation|
|Fennel||Garlic – in small amounts|
|Mustard Seed||Lemon Balm|
|Roses||Black Eyed Susan|
|Peaches – ONLY with pits removed||Oranges|
|Buckkbrush – Indian currant||Agapanthus|
|Cantaloupe||Angel Wing Begonias|
|Cedar Needles, Leaves, and even Bark||Bay Leaves|
|Blackberry Bush||Beets – both root and leaves|
|Cooked Beans||Cooked Peas|
|Baccharis – Coyote Bush||Comfrey|
|Dogwood Tree||Elm Tree|
|Peanut butter||Swiss chard|
|Whole cottonseed||Distiller’s grains (by-product of brewing)|
Can sheep eat popcorn?
Yes, they can. Sheep can safely eat a little bit of plain popcorn as a treat, but you should definitely avoid the kind with butter, salt, sugar and other seasonings. Remember that too much grain in a sheep’s diet can easily cause problems!
Can sheep eat mint?
Yes. Mint, like most herbs used in cooking, is a tasty treat for sheep and they seem to like the bracing taste. If you’re growing any mint on your property that you don’t want your sheep to get you had better keep them away from it.
Can sheep eat peaches?
Yes, sheep can eat peaches. Like most fruits, peaches make an occasional part of a sheep’s diet or a tasty treat for them. However, it should only be fed to them in strict moderation since too much sugar can easily upset the balance of their rumen.
Can sheep eat raisins?
Yes, your sheep can have some raisins from time to time. Raisins are just dried grapes, but they are packed with concentrated sugars. A few raisins as an occasional treat will not harm your sheep, but do not make them a regular part of their diet.
Can sheep eat green beans?
Yes, sheep can eat green beans safely. Highly nutritious, green beans are quite popular with sheep and they will readily eat all parts of the plant and particularly the leaves.
Can sheep eat mushrooms?
Yes, sheep can eat mushrooms assuming they are not toxic. Although not a typical part of a sheep’s diet, they will usually eat them when they come upon them growing in the pasture. It is worth inspecting the pasture where you will allow your sheep to browse to make sure there are no known toxic varieties in the area.
Can sheep eat zucchini?
Yes. Sheep can eat zucchini, and is a nutritious supplement to their usual diet. With a good amount of vitamins and minerals and plenty of moisture, this can help boost a sheep’s overall level of nutrition.
Can sheep eat straw?
Yes, sheep can eat straw but it has very little to offer them in the way of nutrition compared to hay. You generally don’t need to worry if your sheep are munching on straw out of boredom or because it is convenient.
Can sheep eat squash?
Yes, sheep can and will eat squash, particularly winter squash. These firm vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals that sheep need, and these can make a great seasonal treat for your flock. Like most vegetables, don’t overfeed them and keep them as a supplement only.
Can sheep eat raspberries?
Yes, they sure can. Raspberries are sweet and highly appealing to sheep, and you might be surprised to know that they will often eat the berries, the leaves, and even the thorny branches sometimes.
Can sheep eat mango?
Yes, sheep can eat mango but only in strictly limited quantities. Mango is nutritious, but absolutely jam-packed with sugar. Your sheep will love it, but too much can easily disrupt their digestive system.
Can sheep eat almonds?
Yes, sheep may eat almonds in moderation. With a great complement of protein and minerals, almonds are a great way to give your sheep a boost and treat them at the same time. Like all nuts, they should only be given to sheep occasionally and in small quantities.
Can sheep eat lemons?
Yes, lemons are safe for sheep to eat. Lemons are packed with natural vitamins, but they are highly acidic. This can easily cause problems in a sheep’s stomach if they are allowed to eat them excessively. You know the drill: give them only as an occasional treat.
Can sheep eat marigolds?
Yes, they can. All parts of the marigold are completely safe for sheep, and they will readily eat them if they are growing in their pasture. If you are growing marigolds for decorative purposes, you’ll need to keep your sheep away from them if you want them to survive!
Can sheep eat moss?
Yes, sheep can and will eat moss. Sheep are browsers, and this means they eat all kinds of plant matter, moss included. There are especially likely to eat it when nibbling on tree bark or branches.
Can sheep eat roses?
Yes, although they will usually avoid roses for easier meals. Roses however are safe and nutritious, and don’t be surprised to see sheep eating the flowers, buds, and thorny branches if they take a liking to them.
Can sheep eat nuts?
Yes, sheep can eat nuts in moderation, and only some kinds. Almonds, pistachios, and cashews are okay in limited quantities, but sheep should not eat walnuts or acorns. Plain, roasted peanuts are also okay as an occasional treat.
Can sheep eat rosemary?
Yes, sheep can eat rosemary safely. Like most herbs, sheep seem to really like rosemary, but you shouldn’t let them eat too much of it as the potent oils that give the plant its flavor could give them an upset stomach.
Can sheep eat daisies?
Yes, sheep can eat daisies just fine. These pretty flowers routinely grow where sheep are allowed to graze, and they are quite nutritious so you should encourage your sheep to eat them.
Can sheep eat maple leaves?
Yes, sheep can eat maple leaves. In fact, live maple leaves are something of a delicacy for sheep and you regularly see them eating them off of any branches they can reach. Don’t expect your sheep to eat up dry, dead maple leaves off your grass, though.
Can sheep eat silage?
Yes, but they should only be fed silage cautiously. High quality silage that has been properly made and stored is it fine for sheep, but if it is moldy or improperly fermented it could make them very ill or even kill them.
Can sheep eat leaves?
Yes, sheep eat all kinds of leaves. Depending on the type of plant and the condition of the leaf, sheep might prefer them as part of their diet or might eat them only if they have no other choice of foods nearby.
Can sheep eat nasturtiums?
Yes, they can. Sheep can eat all parts of a nasturtium, including the blooms. These plants are generally full of vitamins and minerals that sheep need, and your flock will love those tender, crisp leaves.
Can sheep eat poison ivy?
Yes, they can! While you and I might run the other way to get away from poison ivy, your sheep don’t suffer from the terrible irritation that poison ivy can cause. They will eat all parts of the plant with no problems.
Can sheep eat peanut butter?
Yes, but only if they are fed sparingly. Peanut butter is extremely high in calories and protein, and overindulgence can easily make a sheep sick. However, as a limited nutritional supplement or as warming feed in the winter time it definitely has its uses. Try to stick to the plainest peanut butter you can find.
Can sheep eat swiss chard?
Yes, sheep can eat swiss chard. Just another leafy green vegetable that can be a mainstay in a sheep’s diet.
Can sheep eat figs?
Yes, but sheep should only eat figs cautiously. Figs, like many fruits, are quite high in sugar and sheep don’t need that much. Also, because sheep tend to swallow their food whole The lumpy, firm texture of a fig might pose a choking hazard. Cut them up, and feed them cautiously and sparingly.
Can sheep eat honey?
yes, sheep may eat honey but it should never be fed to lambs. Honey is extremely sweet, and lambs might be vulnerable to bacteria and honey, especially raw honey.
Can sheep eat ferns?
Yes, sheep can eat ferns. However, certain species of ferns are toxic to mammals, and there are other toxic plants that are not true ferns but are labeled as such. Make sure you positively ID any plant that you were going to allow your sheep to eat.
Can sheep eat garlic?
Yes, sheep can eat garlic but it should be fed to them only for specific purposes. Garlic can be used as a natural vermifuge, or dewormer, and it is nutritious but too much of it can cause bloat in sheep which might be fatal.
Can sheep eat lavender?
Yes, they can. Another highly aromatic herb, sheep will readily eat lavender when given the chance.
Can sheep eat radishes?
Yes, sheep can eat radishes, but they are far more likely to eat the leafy green, grassy tops rather than the root vegetable itself. Sheep can eat the root if it is chopped up into smaller pieces for them, however.
Can sheep eat lilacs?
Yes, sheep will eat lilacs. they will eat the blooms and all other parts of the plant.
Can sheep eat honeysuckle?
Yes, they can, and sheep love the stuff. Honeysuckle is highly nutritious and greatly loved by sheep, so you can expect them to eat it wherever they encounter it.
Can sheep eat pine needles?
Yes, sheep can eat pine needles. However, they don’t like them nearly as much as some other animals, particularly goats, and are fairly likely to ignore them in favor of other, better food.
Can sheep eat kelp?
Yes, sheep can eat kelp. Kelp is dense with nutrients, and is increasingly used as an ingredient in feed or even as a dedicated supplemental feed on its own.
Can sheep eat arugula?
Yes, sheep can eat arugula. This peppery, leafy vegetable is another great source of vitamins and minerals for sheep.
Things Sheep Can’t Eat
It is far easier to avoid giving your mob of sheep fruits and vegetables they cannot eat than it is to prevent the growth of dangerous to deadly plants and weeds (or forbs) in their pasture.
In addition to watching what you choose to feed the sheep keenly, you must also do a routine inspection in and around their pasture and pen to make sure no poisonous growth is occurring.
|Cherry Trees||Horse Nettle|
|St. John’s Wort||Rhododendrons|
|Oleander||Castor Oil Plant|
|Iceland Poppy||Blue Lupin|
|Lily of the Valley||Chokecherry Trees|
|Plum Trees||Ponderosa Pines|
|Elderberry Trees||Bracken Ferns|
|Morning Glory||Garden Iris|
|Japanese Pieris – deadly toxic||Flixweed|
|Burning Bush Berries||Daffodils|
|Dog food||Chicken feed|
|Queen Anne’s lace||Chocolate|
|Moldy hay or silage||Any kind of meat|
Can sheep eat daffodils?
No, sheep should not eat daffodils. All parts of the plant are fairly toxic for sheep and the bulb in particular is packed with toxins that can make sheep very sick. most sheep know to avoid daffodils, but you’ll need to take care if allowing sheep to graze in any area where they are growing.
Can sheep eat ice cream?
No, sheep should not eat ice cream. Ice cream is absolutely full of sugars and adult sheep don’t need very much dairy at all in their diet, if any.
No matter how much you love your favorite flavor of ice cream, be content keeping it for just you and your family: don’t share it with your sheep.
Can sheep eat avocado?
No, sheep should never eat avocado. all parts of the avocado contain a toxin called persin which is dangerous to most mammals. This toxic is present in abundance throughout the skin, pit, and all other parts of the plant. no it is present only in trace amounts in the flesh of the avocado, you shouldn’t risk feeding it to your sheep.
Can sheep eat eggplant?
No, sheep should not eat eggplant. Eggplant is part of the nightshade family, and most parts of these plants including the fruits contain solanine, which is highly toxic. the stems, leaves, and roots of the nightshade family plans, eggplant included, contain high concentrations of the toxin.
Can sheep eat dog food?
No, sheep should not eat dog food. If one of your sheep eats a few stray bites, you don’t need to worry about it, but dog food contains meat and other animal ingredients which sheep cannot properly digest. Don’t deliberately feed your sheep dog food.
Can sheep eat chicken feed?
No, sheep should not eat chicken feed. Although it is not overtly harmful if they have just a few bites, chicken feed is nowhere near nutritionally correct for sheep and furthermore, it contains animal ingredients that sheep cannot correctly digest.
Can sheep eat holly leaves?
No! all parts of the holly plant, including the leaves and those appealing-looking berries are packed full of complex toxins that can easily kill your sheep. Most sheep know to leave holly alone, but you shouldn’t take any chances.
Can sheep eat acorns?
No, sheep should not eat acorns. Acorns are full of toxic tannins which can make sheep severely ill. Tannins can be removed through a repeated leaching process and made safe for sheep to eat, but this is probably too much work for most shepherds.
Can sheep eat jasmine?
No, sheep should not eat jasmine. True jasmines contain compounds that are toxic to sheep, and there are also plants that are not true jasmine plants that are similarly toxic.
Can sheep eat hemlock?
No! Hemlock is extremely poisonous and can easily kill sheep if they eat it. this is another plant that most sheep seem to instinctively avoid, but I would not take the chance and instead keep them from going anywhere near it.
Can sheep eat raw eggs?
No, they cannot. sheep are strictly herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat or other animal products. For this reason, sheep should not be fed eggs whether they are raw or not.
Can sheep eat queen Anne’s lace?
No, they cannot. All parts of Queen Anne’s lace contain toxic compounds that are pretty harmful to sheep. Indigestion is a certainty, and more serious problems might result. In case sheep eat a large quantity, death might result.
Sheep Snacking Tips
- Bread and crackers should only be given in small amounts as a rare treat, if ever. Grain overload can cause bloat, especially in ruminant animals like sheep and goats.
- Salt and mineral blocks should be kept in the goat pen as a free-choice snack. Mineral blocks can help keep the nutrient levels at an optimal percentage in livestock. Common nutrients included in mineral blocks include Vitamins A, D, and E, calcium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium, zinc, trace minerals (copper, iodine, manganese, and iron), as well as potassium.
- Baking soda also makes a superb free-choice snack and natural bloat relief aid.
- Diatomaceous Earth can be sprinkled on a healthy snack or into the feed tub with grain rations to help the sheep naturally fight worms and other parasites. Only agricultural Diatomaceous Earth can be used – all other varieties or toxic to livestock.
- Do not offer a snack or feed grain rations on the ground. When sheep and other livestock eat directly off the ground where they and other animals leave droppings, the chances of contracting worms and possibly deadly bacteria increase exponentially.
- Introduce only one new healthy snack at a time in a small amount to avoid gorging by the sheep so you can gauge which foods might cause an allergic reaction of other ill effects. Always give snacks later in the day after the sheep have consumed their necessary amount of hay.
The best diet for sheep is a natural one, supplemented only slightly with grain feed and healthy snacks. By and large, sheep will eat the grass, plants, clover, and other types of legumes that grow in the habitat they are being raised.
Planting alfalfa, vetch, soybeans, red clover, and cowpeas in the herd’s grazing area will provide a nutrient-rich and natural food source for the sheep to graze upon during warm weather months – no grain feed supplements required.
Sheep spend up to 7 hours a day foraging, particularly in the morning and afternoon – so be sure to keep them busy!
If you’d like to save this list for later use, you can get it here in PDF format. Are there any food that we missed that you’d like to know whether your sheep can eat? Let me know in the comments below…
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day, raising chickens, goats, horses, and tons of vegetables. She’s an expert in all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping, and many more.