Back in 2019, the summer that a wildfire raged a couple of miles from our home, we purchased our first batch of sheep, 10 expectant ewes in total. Knowing next to nothing about keeping sheep, we were set on learning. Learning what to feed sheep was step #1.
Sheep are a ruminant mammal (which basically means an even-toed animal that chews its cud regurgitated from its rumen), typically kept as a livestock animal.
Raised mostly for meat on our farm, sheep also produce a thick woolly coat that is used for knitting and fleece.
We had no experience with sheep, but we had raised some other types of animals so we were confident in our ability to raise them up well.
After all, how hard could it be?
Of course, at that point we were not aware of how sheep like to kill themselves, and how adorable baby lambs are.
The first question we had, was what do sheep eat?
When learning about animals, it’s helpful when you can talk to someone that has experience with raising sheep before.
We, at that point, knew no one that was raising sheep in our area.
Through experience with other ruminants, as well as studying up on them, we learned what we needed to feed them.
From our experience, what we found was that sheep eat mostly grass and hay, such as bromegrass, alfalfa hay, and barley.
Occasionally, some grains such as oats can be supplemented.
Sheep are grazing animals, but we live in a climate where six months out of the year there is either snow or frost. This means we have to feed our animals hay during the winter. Baling alfalfa and barley straw work really well.
Grasses Sheep Will Eat
Grass-fed lamb is delicious, and grass is also their favorite thing to eat. We put in some oats the first year, under-seeded with an expensive pasture mix.
A perennial grass, this will overwinter. When properly grazed, using high-density, short-duration grazing methods will thrive. It is a high-yielding, cold hardy, and long-lasting grass.
A lot of people use Kentucky bluegrass to grow their ideal lawn, but sheep also love it. It is more traffic intolerant than a lot of other grasses, and given its ideal conditions will thrive. It is high in forage quality, and they like the taste.
Timothy grass is a fast-growing cool-season perennial.
Mixed with alfalfa, it makes nutritious forage for sheep and other animals such as horses. It doesn’t grow a lot after the initial spring flush, so it is best used to mix with another seed.
There are many different types of fescue, including Creeping Red Fescue, Chewings Fescue Grass, Sheep Fescue, as well as Tall Fescue.
Sheep fescue is a drought-resistant, shade tolerant, and tolerant of acidic soils. It does establish slower than other grasses but is a hardy cool-season bunchgrass.
Another great grass for sheep, barley is an excellent supplement to ewe diets during late gestation and lactation. It is high in iron and Manganese.
The ideal grass for sheep is actually a mixture of different types of grasses. Grass mixes are often more expensive at feed stores but are worth it in the long run.
Other things Sheep Like To Eat
Legumes are a large category that includes peas, lentils, and lucerne. Lucerne (or Alfalfa), is a legume that feeds sheep high-quality nutrients, while also fixing the soil.
A deep-rooted perennial, it has long been prized for its superior content of minerals and vitamins.
I had never heard of forbs before, but what I learned is that forbs are a broad leafed, non woody herbs (usually called a weed) that sheep love.
In grain form, or in grass form, sheep love oats. Often used to finish lambs, oats in small amounts are also beneficial for expectant ewes, as it is a good source of energy for them.
We also discovered that they really enjoy corn.
In the summer of 2020, we came home one night to approximately 50 sheep in our garden, stripping our corn. They managed to destroy half of our corn crop in very little time.
What Sheep Will (or should) Not Eat
We discovered what sheep will not eat everything. They also should not eat everything. There are plants that are poisonous to sheep, although they are rather particular about what they eat.
- Canada Thistle
- Rotted Hay
- Raw Vegetables
Feeding sheep is not rocket science, but knowing what they prefer to eat, and what they should not eat will help your flock to grow strong.
What Do Sheep Drink?.
Just water. Simple, and effective, they thrive when they receive water year round.
They will also eat snow during the winter, but they prefer water and will grow better when they have access to a quality water source.
While they do get some water from the grasses they eat, it is not enough. They need to have water.
I hope this helped you to know what sheep eat and drink. Sheep have their own quirks, but we love them on our farm. A docile and meek animal, sheep are great family pets and easy to keep.
Update: In 2020, due to life choices, we sold our entire herd. I missed it so. Yes, they can be super annoying. But they also add so much life to the farm. In Spring of 2023, we bought a small herd of hair sheep.