Updated May 26, 2021
If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special sheep residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of sheep at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. While sheep are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider in their physiology and nutritional needs!
The most important thing to keep in mind with feeding sheep is that they are grazing ruminants. That is, in most cases, they should be eating an almost exclusive diet of pasture or hay, rather than grain or formulated sheep food, which can be too rich or calorically dense than what is necessary to keep them healthy. Rather than directly receiving nutrients from the food they eat, sheep must first ferment their food in their complex digestive system consisting of a four-chambered stomach and then absorb the nutrients out of the resultant fermented mixture. Due to the way they absorb nutrients, they need to be gradually introduced to new and novel food if changing their diet is necessary; abruptly changing their diet can lead to bloat and other digestive issues.
Daily Food For Sheep
A healthy sheep’s diet should consist primarily of grasses, either fresh (in the form of quality pasture) or dried (in the form of hay). The amount of food a sheep needs is often estimated on a dry matter basis (“dry matter” refers to what would remain if all of the moisture was removed from the food). The amount of dry matter a sheep needs to consume in order to meet their nutritional needs depends on many factors including the temperature, the type and quality of the food, and the individual (their weight, life stage, general health, and activity level all factor in). Because of this, there is a wide range of estimates different sources provide regarding dry matter intake, ranging from below 2% to 5% of their body weight. According to Susan Schoenian, Sheep & Goat Specialist for University of Maryland Extension, in order to meet their nutritional requirements, sheep generally need to consume 2-4% of their body weight in dry matter. By offering hay or pasture free-choice, individuals can consume as much food as they need (though some individuals may require additional supplementation on top of this and others may need their intake restricted, in which case your veterinarian can make specific recommendations regarding their dietary needs). In order to maintain healthy rumen function, sheep typically need at least 7% dietary crude protein and at least 50% dietary fiber.
Sheep pastures should consist primarily of mixed grasses with a smaller percentage of legumes (such as clover). Your local cooperative extension office should be able to recommend a seed mix for your residents that will grow well in your area, but if you care for male sheep residents, be sure to ask about a pasture mix that is suitable for neutered males, as some forages may increase the risk of urinary calculi.
Before giving sheep access to pasture, ensure that it has been thoroughly checked for toxic plants! Some sheep will prefer to eat more interesting plant life like weeds before deciding to munch on grasses. Your pastures should be divided up and their use rotated throughout the season to give the foliage time to regenerate and to lower the chances of residents ingesting parasites in the pasture (which is more likely when sheep graze on short pastures). Without proper pasture rotation, sheep will often graze pasture so close to the ground that they can defoliate a pasture quite quickly! Sheep will typically graze 7 or 8 hours a day, often in the early morning and late afternoon/ evening.
Lacking adequate pasture, either due to the time of year or the quality of your available pasture, you should feed sheep a grass hay, such as timothy or orchard grass, though the specific variety will depend a lot on your location and what is available. Hay can come in multiple cuttings, with 1st and 2nd being the most frequently used. The cutting simply indicates when the hay was harvested (cut) for the season- first cutting was harvested first, second cutting is harvested second, and so on. In some areas, first cutting may be all that is available to you- it all depends on your region, the growing season, and your supplier. Depending on the type of hay you use, there may be physical and nutritional differences between the different cuttings. For example, when comparing first and second cutting timothy hay, first cutting is typically coarser than second cutting, which is often richer, softer, and also more expensive (though in some cases, first and second cutting may look very similar).
It’s best to provide hay in a hay feeder in order to keep it clean and dry and to reduce waste. Be wary of hay feeders designed for horses, as certain styles can pose the risk of entrapment for sheep, particularly wall-mounted styles with tapered vertical bars that have wider gaps towards the top that narrow at the bottom. A sheep may fit their entire head in the gap at its widest point but then become trapped when they bring their head closer to the ground. While this tends to be more of an issue for goats, who are more likely than sheep to stand up on their hind legs to eat, these feeders still pose a risk to sheep, so it’s best to avoid them. We’ve heard devastating stories of goats dying as a result of getting stuck in these feeders- either from strangulation or breaking their neck trying to free themselves- so we recommend using a safer type of hay feeder for both sheep and goats.
Limit Or Avoid These
Alfalfa pastures should not be used generally for sheep feeding as its high calcium and protein content can cause health issues like obesity and urinary calculi. Urinary blockages are especially dangerous in neutered male sheep, and therefore it’s best to avoid feeding alfalfa to them. Alfalfa should only be fed to babies or females who are pregnant, recovering from an illness, or struggling to keep weight on.
Grain (and formulated sheep food from farm supply stores) should be highly limited on a sheep’s menu. It can easily cause obesity and painful and dangerous urinary calculi in sheep. It can also cause laminitis. Grain should only be offered to sheep who need the extra nutrition due to weight loss or illness on the recommendation of a veterinarian, but there are alternatives that can be used to supplement a sheep’s diet without the risk that comes with grain and concentrates; healthier options for supplemental feeding includes soaked timothy hay pellets or a mix of soaked timothy pellets with beet pulp. Very young sheep, nursing mothers, and sheep who are significantly underweight can have their protein supplemented with protein blocks or with a soybean or sunflower meal rather than using grain. If you do offer grain to sheep, talk to your veterinarian about ammonium chloride supplementation to prevent struvite calculi. And if you opt to feed sheep a premixed diet, ensure that it is safe for sheep to eat, as fortified goat food may contain too much copper for a sheep to safely consume.
Water For Sheep
Like every sanctuary resident, sheep require a clean, freely-accessible water supply. The amount of water your residents will consume in a day varies based on their size, the temperature, and whether or not they are eating hay or grazing on pasture, but in general a non-lactating sheep will drink 1-2 gallons of water each day. Water consumption will increase as temperatures rise, and individuals eating hay will drink more water than those grazing on pasture due to the much lower moisture content of hay compared to fresh vegetation. Individuals who are pregnant or lactating will require more water than those who are not- on average between 2-4 gallons per day. Automatic watering systems with thermostats for automated heating are a good option to minimize spilling and keep the sheep well-hydrated in freezing conditions.
Minerals And Supplements For Sheep
Sheep should always have ready access to sheep-formulated minerals, either in the form of loose minerals in a clean dispenser or from mineral blocks in a clean holder. These help supply sheep with essential nutrients like calcium, chlorine, sodium, phosphorous, magnesium, sulfur, potassium, Vitamins A, D, and E, and trace minerals like copper, cobalt, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc. Some of the most common deficiencies a sheep may have in nutrients are often Vitamin E and/ or selenium. If you suspect these deficiencies, talk to a veterinarian about getting a blood test and options for supplementation in the case of confirmed deficiencies. A prolonged deficiency of certain vitamins or minerals can have catastrophic health consequences, such as stiffness, lameness, paralysis, neurological problems, and White Muscle Disease.
Generally, a sheep should be fed a 2 to 1 calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in order to prevent urinary calculi.
Sheep can also be given access to black oil sunflower seeds on occasion to naturally boost their vitamin E and other trace minerals, which can benefit their overall health and improve their coat.
If the sheep in your care have been very susceptible to bloat in the past, your veterinarian may recommend offering a little baking soda in addition to their mineral mix, but be aware that too much baking soda can cause urinary calculi, so you must weigh the risks for your residents.
If you change the available mineral mix for your sheep residents, be sure to watch closely to make sure your residents are consuming the appropriate amount (as some are more or less palatable than others) and watch for any signs of potential nutritional imbalances.
Treats For Sheep
Sheep are natural grazers, so the majority of what they eat should take the form of grassy foods. You should not feed too many treats to sheep, as they can become overweight or suffer from dangerous conditions like bloat, enterotoxemia, and urinary calculi quite easily. However, an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping sheep happy (or motivated to come to you if they’ve snuck out of their The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.!) Once you’ve ensured that they’re sheep bite-sized, safe and healthy sheep treats include grains, vegetables, and limited fruit, such as:
- Alfalfa Cubes (for females only!)
- Sunflower Seeds
Foods That You Should Not Feed To Sheep
There are a number of foods that contain potential toxins or substances goats cannot digest or tolerate. You can find our list of potentially toxic foods here.
Food Recommendations For Older Sheep
While some older sheep residents may continue to thrive on a standard sheep diet consisting of fresh or dried forages, others may require certain modifications or supplementation. It is not uncommon for elderly sheep to lose weight, which could be due to various issues such as dental disease, an underlying health condition (such as OPP), or eating less due to environmental factors or social dynamics. You should be very mindful of an older sheep’s weight so that you can catch weight loss early. It’s important to identify the cause of the weight loss, take steps to address the issue, and make changes to their diet, living arrangement, and/or environment, based on their needs. In some cases, you may need to separate the individual one or more times per day so you can offer them supplemental foods to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need. To read more about diet recommendations for older sheep, in addition to other care considerations, check out our resource here.
Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition (Non-Compassionate Source)
Homemade Treats For Sheep | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)
What Sheep Eat | Sheep 101 (Non-Compassionate Source)
An Introduction To Feeding Small Ruminants | Maryland Small Ruminant Page (Non-Compassionate Source)
Plants Poisonous To Livestock | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)