Nutrition Matters: How to Properly Feed Your Sheep

Sheep of different age, sex and purpose have varying needs. Here's our guide to sheep nutrition as well as a word about copper.

by Alli Kelley
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Feeding sheep is similar to feeding goats, in that you must first determine the purpose of your sheep and then provide them proper nutrition. For example, pregnant ewes need a different diet than growing lambs. All sheep will produce better quality and quantity of wool when fed appropriately.

Most sheep are kept on pasture or hay, and if it’s high in protein and good quality, it’s sufficient in terms of nutrition most of the time. In addition to high-quality forage, sheep must also have a professionally balanced mineral available to them.

Copper Concerns

While all livestock require copper, in the wrong quantities, copper can also be toxic. Sheep are the most sensitive to copper toxicity, thus you must pay special attention to copper in their diet.

The presence or absence of other minerals in a sheep’s diet can affect how copper is metabolized and contribute to or lessen the chance of copper toxicity. Testing hay and pasture where you plan to graze sheep can make a huge difference in survival rate.

Often, hay alone has more copper than sheep will need, so feeding them a mineral or feed supplement balanced for another livestock species could be fatal. Even grazing sheep on pasture where waste from poultry or pigs—which typically require more copper in their diets—can alter copper levels in the sheep diet.

Ewes & Lambs

nutrition sheep lambs ewes

In terms of nutrition, a pregnant ewe needs a high-energy feed, such as grain, before and after lambing. Slowly increase the concentrate she consumes to about 15 percent of her diet (dry matter) before lambing and then 35 percent of her diet (dry matter) after lambing. This will help prepare her body for the stress of lactation and minimize the possibility of health issues such as pregnancy toxemia or metabolic diseases. The exact amount your ewe will need depends on her age, health and the number of lambs she is expected to have.

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Lambs will, of course, need colostrum immediately after birth. If a lamb is nursing or bottle-feeding well, creep feed should be offered between 10 and 14 days old. You can purchase professionally balanced creep feeds for a reasonable price; lambs don’t eat much. While creep feeding aids in rumen development, encouraging consumption of nutritious feed can also reduce the stress of weaning.

If your ewe has a properly balanced diet and both the ewe and the lamb are consuming a high-quality
forage, finishing weights for meat lambs can be reached more quickly.

If you are finishing out your lambs on pasture or hay, provide a supplement with greater energy and possibly protein. You can determine which supplement to use by knowing the nutrient composition of the forage you feed your lambs.

Overall, you can meet the nutritional requirements for your flock by feeding hay, grazing, providing a high-energy supplement and mineral, or a combination. Knowing the nutritional value of the feeds you are providing your sheep is the key to knowing what you need to feed them to maintain a healthy flock.

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.

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