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 even death.
The primary diet of sheep should be hay. They are ruminant animals. Like cattle, goats, elk, and deer, sheep have four stomach chambers. When their ruminen 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.
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.
Mature sheep can garner most of the nutrients they need to remain healthy when grazing in a field of leafy alfalfa hay or even a grass hay that has not yet matured.
Lambs will grow more robustly and remain in better health when offered a quality mature legume hay, and can eat it more easily due to the fine and softer stems the hay produces.
1. Orchard Hay
This type of hay grows extremely 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 that grass 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 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 for 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, a 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 that 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, and for a cost savings.
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 base ingredients in any herbal remedies you make to bolster the animal’s immune system, treat inflammation, easy birthing pain, and to deter worms and other parasites.
78 Healthy Snacks Sheep Can Eat
|Grapes||Peppermint – in small amounts|
|Dill||Crabapple Tree Leaves|
|Marshmallow Herb Plant – not the junk food in a bag||Graham Crackers – in extreme moderation|
|Fennel||Garlic – in small amounts in moderation|
|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|
50 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 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||False Tansy|
Sheep Snack 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 and so you can gauge which foods might cause an allergic reaction of other ill effects to your herd. 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.