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 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
Foods That You Should Not Feed To Sheep
Foods to avoid feeding to sheep include:
- Animal products of any kind
- Avocado (Any part of the plant -fruit, leaves, stems, bark, and seeds- can be toxic to sheep. The toxic element in avocado is persin)
- Brassicas -Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts. Turnips and kale are also in this family. Turnips have some specific toxicity issues concerning thyroid production. (Use caution. Don’t feed large amounts. Avoid seeds and roots.)
- Celery (Use caution. Celery contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitization. Never feed roots or seeds.)
- Citrus (Citrus can cause gastric distress in larger amounts or if fed regularly.)
- Chocolate (While there aren’t many sources to confirm whether chocolate is a great danger to sheep, it does contain theobromine which can be toxic in a number of other mammals. There are limited studies indicating certain amounts can be toxic so it is best to use caution and avoid altogether.)
- Nightshade “vegetables” (Use caution. Do not feed green, immature fruits or leaves, vines or roots of any nightshade vegetable, such as eggplant, tomatillo, pepper, or tomatoes.)
- Onions (While sheep have a greater resistance to toxicity issues than some other mammals, onions are not a great treat.)
- Parsley (Parsley contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitization)
- Potatoes (The skin, particularly green skin, and “eyes” contain glycoalkaloids and solanine toxins; leaves and vines can be toxic as well.)
- Rhubarb (There are a number of factors that affect levels of toxins in rhubarb; the leaves are particularly toxic but it is better to avoid the whole plant as it contains oxalic acid. Cooking it may reduce toxin levels in the stems.)
- Un-Pitted stone fruits (Pits can lodge in the intestines and pits contain toxins.)
For a larger list of things that are toxic to sheep, including plants that are toxic, check out our resource 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). 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, Flaxseed, 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 anemia, which can lead to dangerous health challenges. Consult with your veterinarian before making big changes to their supplementation.
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.
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)
Livestock Winter Hay Needs | OSU Sheep Team (Non-Compassionate Source)
Plants Poisonous To Livestock | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)