Feeding Practices in Sheep: What Do They Eat?

sheep grazing on pasture

What Do Sheep Eat?

Sheep are ruminants, which means they have one stomach with four compartments. Some farmers that raise sheep will strictly raise them on pasture. Sheep can meet their nutrient requirements by mainly consuming forages on pasture, and in colder months, good quality hay. However, supplementing their diet with grain products and minerals can provide assurances on better feed efficiency, growth, production, and reproduction. Most producers will supplement sheep with grain when breeding, during pregnancy, lactation, malnourishment or as lambs. Grain provides extra nutrients during these stages of life. Farmers can cut down on the cost of feeding grain if they only allow certain groups of sheep to receive it. Free choice mineral is also a great choice to provide for sheep in a mineral feeder.

sheep feed pan

What Do Lambs Eat?

Lambs can nurse all the way up to 90 days old. When weaning a lamb, their weight matters. They should weigh at least 45 pounds or more when being considered for weaning. Creep feeding can start as early as ten days old and is highly recommended. However, lambs don’t always show interest in this until they are around three or four weeks of age.

What is Creep Feeding?

Creep feeding is a common practice on sheep farms. This involves creating a space for lambs to go that gives them access to grain before they are fully weaned from their mothers’ milk. A small pen is placed either in the barn or outside with the sheep, depending on the time of year. The pen is big enough for the lambs to go through slots in the pen fencing, but the ewes cannot enter the space. Inside the pen is a feeder often referred to as a creep feeder and contains starter feed, like our Start Right Lamb Creep or Cherry Krave. This gives the lamb unlimited access to the starter feed to help give them more nutrients, as well as to help the weaning process. The picture to the right is an example of what a creep feeder can look like.

lamb creep feeding pen

When to Turn Your Sheep to Pasture?

Grazing is important for sheep, but when is the right time to turn them to pasture? The recommendation for sheep is to start grazing between mid-April and May. The best way to manage your pasture is by rotational grazing your sheep. Kalmbach Premium Weatherized Sheep Mineral

Rotational grazing is when you section off your pasture and move your sheep to graze each section at different times. For one ewe, you need at least 15 square feet. After you have your pasture section, you will place your flock in one of those pastures for roughly three to seven days. The length of time they spend in each paddock (pasture area) is dependent on how many sheep are in your flock. Depending on how big your flock is, they could graze a paddock under 48 hours! By grazing this way, the pasture has time to recover between each rotation and grow back in time to graze it again in the following weeks. It is always important to supplement pasture-based feeding systems with free-choice minerals. At Kalmbach Feeds®, we offer two minerals that are specifically formulated for sheep. We offer a free choice mineral, 2:1 Sheep Mineral with ZinPro®, as well as weatherized mineral, Dry Guard® Sheep Mineral, to help reduce waste and leaching.

What Do Sheep Eat if Pasture is Not Available?

When sheep cannot graze, it is important to give them good quality hay. Grown in most states, orchard hay is a great option! When sheep are not grazing, providing enough quality hay on a daily basis is important. Forage is important because it will provide the majority of the fiber required in the diet of a sheep.

In addition to good quality hay, providing a well-balanced feed will help them maintain condition and production. Grain can be supplemented for certain groups of your flock, and product options vary by life stages. Growing lambs and nursing ewes are great examples of life stages that require the most energy for growth and lactation. For ewes, our 15% Ewe Maintainer or our Ewe Builder pellet are great options. For growing lambs, creep feed can be fed continuously or other starter feeds, like our Start Right Lamb Developer or our 18 Lamb Starter Grower can help your lambs optimize their performance.

What Are Some Diet Considerations for Sheep?

When deciding what grain to feed to your sheep, you have to be careful with copper levels. Sheep are sensitive to copper, but it is needed in their diets in small amounts. Because copper supplementation is detrimental to most sheep, most all-stock and sheep feed products will have no added copper. Many feeds formulated for other species have higher levels of copper that can be deadly to sheep. Another consideration is adding ammonium chloride to your sheep’s diet. Development of urinary calculi is a common metabolic disease in sheep. The calculi are stones that develop and get stuck in the urinary tract, which stops urination and is extremely painful. Ammonium chloride works as a preventative for urinary calculi. All Kalmbach Feeds®’ sheep products will supply adequate levels of ammonium chloride for calculi prevention when fed according to directions.

Which Plants Are and Are Not Safe for Sheep to Consume?

There are certain plants in the pasture that can be deadly to sheep: Ragwort, Bracken and Capewood, just to name a few. Bracken is pictured to the right. These plants can be found in some pastures and are toxic to sheep. Going through and checking your pasture for toxic plants is a great idea to avoid anything happening to your flock. Some safe plants that are often found in pasture that sheep can consume are the wide range of clover plants. Another safe plant that sheep actually love are forbs, which are herbaceous flowering plants. Sheep are safe to eat the whole plant, including the seeds.

bracken plant toxic to sheep

Feeding sheep on pasture can be a very rewarding, low input system. Kalmbach Feeds® is here to help with your needs and provide solutions to any nutritional problems your flock might face.


Hattie Hartschuh

A Sycamore, Ohio native, Hattie Hartschuh grew up only 25 minutes north of Kalmbach Feeds on her family's farm. Over the years, she and her family have raised cattle, sheep, horses, goats, pigs, rabbits and chickens. Growing up on the farm also gave her the opportunity to show multiple species through 4-H and FFA. She pursued both her B.S. and her M.S. in Animal Science at Kansas State University, where she specialized in Ruminant Nutrition. Hattie joined the Kalmbach Feeds team in January of 2015 and thoroughly enjoys helping customers and dealers provide the best possible nutrition to their herds.