Updated March 4, 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 four-chambered stomachs and then absorb the nutrients out of the resultant fermented mixture. As a result of this complex digestive system, sheep need to graze for at least eight hours per day. 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.
Daily Food For Sheep
Pasture Or Hay
A healthy sheep needs to eat approximately .03 pounds of grass or hay per pound of their bodyweight each day, with more food potentially necessary if they are health compromised, very young or old, a new mother, or during colder seasons. The best food for sheep comes in the form of high quality pasture, especially mixed grasses and clover varieties. Before letting sheep loose in their pasture, ensure that it has been thoroughly checked for toxic plants first! Some sheep will prefer to eat more interesting plant life like weeds before deciding to munch on the pasture. Your pasture should be divided up and their use rotated throughout the season to give the foliage time to regenerate and lower the chances of parasites from spreading in the pasture and infecting your residents. This is especially important with sheep, who eat pasture so close to the ground that they can defoliate an overused pasture quite quickly!
Lacking adequate pasture, you should feed sheep high quality sheep-approved hay, like timothy. Keep in mind that sheep will likely avoid eating any hay that has been trampled underfoot, so if you are primarily feeding sheep with baled hay, it’s best to utilize a sheep-friendly hay feeder that will keep their living spaces cleaner and limit waste. Avoid designs optimized for other animals such as horse feeders as sheep can get their heads stuck in them. These designs often have 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.
Sheep need to eat approximately a pound of fiber each day. If they aren’t getting enough from the food they eat, they may try to get it from other sources such as nibbling on wood or potentially the wool of fellow sheep.
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 is very high in fat and 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 do the trick without the risk; healthier options for supplemental feeding includes soaked timothy hay pellets or 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 average sheep drinks 1-2 gallons of water each 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.
Sheep require more water in the hot season, when pregnant (requiring up to 4 gallons a day of water!), and when eating hay rather than grass.
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. The most likely deficiency a sheep may have in nutrients is often Vitamin E and 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 radio 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 adding a little baking soda into 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 sheep, you should be prepared for the possibility of unexpected health repercussions among your flock.
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 living space!) 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
Things That Are Toxic To Sheep
Like many herbivores, there are some common plants and foods that are toxic and must be kept out of a sheep’s living space for their health. In the case of toxic trees, even their leaves in fall can contain enough toxin to seriously harm sheep. This includes:
- Animal products of any kind
- Bracken Ferns
- Cherry, chokecherry, elderberry, and plum trees
- Holly trees
- Lily Of The Valley
- Ponderosa Pine trees
- Mountain Laurel
- Red Maple trees
- St. John’s Wort
- Yew trees
- Many ornamental plants
See a larger list of toxic things for sheep here.
Special Food Recommendations For Older Sheep
Older sheep can typically lose, break, or wear down some or many of their teeth through the course of their lives, especially if their food comes primarily from grazing on natural terrain. Damage to or loss of a molar can then cause issues in other molars- for example, without a matching upper molar to keep it ground down, a lower molar can become painfully sharp and may need to be routinely filed down by a veterinarian. As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older sheep with dental issues to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues. They try their best to chew the grass or hay, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest. It’s especially important to monitor an older sheep’s weight as they age to ensure that they are getting enough to eat (and are able to eat the food available to them). If necessary, you can make your own special food by soaking grass hay pellets and beet pulp or offering chopped hay (for females, you can offer alfalfa if they truly need the extra calcium and protein, but this can lead to urinary calculi in males). By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and grass require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. You can also have a veterinarian evaluate and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful. Never put your hand near a sheep’s molars, as they have very strong jaws and sharp teeth which could cause a permanent injury.
If it seems like older sheep aren’t thriving, it could be a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective chewing and digestion or an underlying health condition. Make sure they continue to have easy access to minerals given where they graze and spend time indoors! If necessary, you can administer a sheep-safe vitamin booster, under the guidance of your veterinarian, to help clear up any nagging deficiencies. Elderly sheep can also benefit from vitamins A, B12, D, and E, Selenium, Calcium, anemia, which can lead to dangerous health challenges. Consult with your veterinarian before making big changes to their supplementation., Kelp, Sugar Beet, Molasses, Black Oil Sunflower Seeds, and multivitamin formulas depending on an elderly sheep’s needs. You should also regularly make sure that they aren’t developing
In general, you should be very mindful of an older sheep’s weight. It is common for sheep to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or stiffness. Overweightness in sheep can lead to a host of health issues. Underweight sheep may be losing out on food from competing sheep or be eating and ingesting less due to teeth troubles and may need their own special source of food to stay healthy. You can supplement a thin sheep’s food with a source that is higher in protein to help them put on more weight, just make sure to keep monitoring their weight to evaluate its effectiveness, and be sure to identify the cause of the weight loss to determine if other interventions are necessary!
Read more about older sheep care recommendations here.
Homemade Treats For Sheep | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)
What Sheep Eat | Sheep 101 (Non-Compassionate Source)
Plants Poisonous To Livestock | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)