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Sheep 101 logo

Little quad grazing
Quad lamb grazing

Spring vegetation
Spring vegetation

Fenced range
South Dakota range

Red clover
Red clover

Clover and grass

White clover

Plenty of grass
Plenty of grass to eat


Hydroponic fodder

Hay auction
Hay Auction

 Different kinds of hay

Lambs eating hay
Lambs eating hay

Ewes eating hay
Ewes eating alfalfa hay

Dinner time
Ewes eating grass hay

 First time haylage eater
Young lamb eating haylage

Two heads in the feeder
Eating creep feed

 Drinking liquid molasses
Drinking liquid molasses

Wet feed
Wet feed

Six grains
Six kinds of grain
Image by Cindy Mason

Storing feed in an old freezer
Corn and protein pellet

Whole cottonseed
Whole cottonseed

Soybean hulls
Soybean hulls

Pineapple cannery waste
Pineapple cannery waste

Range cubes
Range cubes

In the mineral feeder
Lambs eating mineral

Eating grain
Eating grain

My hoop house
Grain bin

Protein tub
Lick tub

At the mineral feeder
Mineral feeder

Salt lick
Salt lick

You expect me to eat all this?
Tropical forages  

Feedstuffs for sheep and lambs

Definition of feedstuff - any of the constituent nutrients of an animal ration.

While forages are the most "natural" diet for sheep and lambs and often the most economical, a sheep's nutritional requirements can be met by feeding a variety of feedstuffs. The rumen is an adaptable organ. It can easily adapt to different feeding programs, so long as it is given ample time to adjust to changes in diet.

Feedstuffs can substitute for one another so long as the sheep's nutritional requirements are being met, nutritional imbalances are not created, and the health of the rumen is not compromised. Feeding programs should consider animal requirements, desired level of performance, feedstuff availability, costs of nutrients, and the labor to deliver the feed.

Pasture, forbs, and browse

Pasture, range, forbs, and browse are usually the primary and most economical source of nutrients for sheep and lambs, and in many cases all that sheep and lambs need to meet their nutritional requirements. For example, from the time a ewe weans her lambs through her first 15 weeks of pregnancy, forage will likely meet all her nutritional needs. Lambs can be finished on high quality forage diets.

Pasture is high in energy, protein, and palatability when it is in a vegetative state. However, it can have a high moisture content when it is rapidly growing, and sometimes it can be difficult for high-producing animals to eat enough "wet" forage to meet their nutrient requirements. Vegetation with high moisture content can also cause sheep and lambs to have loose feces that can accumulate on their back sides. For this reason, it is important to dock lambs that will be finished on pasture. Bloat is not uncommon when sheep are grazing the first grass of the spring or certain legumes.

As pasture plants mature, their palatability, digestibility, and nutritive value decline, thus it is important to rotate and/or clip pastures to keep plants in a vegetative state. Forbs often have higher digestibility and crude protein levels than grasses at similar stages of maturity. It is becoming popular in some countries to graze sheep on herbs (chicory and plaintain). Sheep are excellent weed eaters and will often choose to eat weeds over grass. Because of their preference for weeds, sheep are often used to control invasive or noxious weeds, such as leafy spurge, knapweed, and kudzu.

There is renewed interest in hydroponic fodder (e.g. barley sprouts) as a feed source for sheep and other livestock. Hydroponic fodder is a nutritious feed, but is high in moisture content, thus usually has a very high nutrient cost. Hydroponic fodder is usually fed as a portion of the diet or mixed into a TMR (total mixed ration).


Hay is forage that has been mowed (cut) and cured (dried) for use as livestock feed. It is usually the primary source of nutrients for sheep during the winter months or dry season when forage plants are not actively growing. Hay varies significantly in quality, and while hay quality can be affected by plant species, quality is determined mostly by the maturity of the plants when they were harvested for hay.

Proper harvesting and storage are necessary to maintain the nutritional quality of hay. Hay that is stored outside without cover deteriorates rapidly in quality. The only way to know the "true" nutritive value of hay is to have it analyzed at a forage testing laboratory. A list of certified forage testing laboratories can be found at www.foragetesting.org.

Hay is usually a moderate source of protein and energy for sheep and lambs. While good grass hays can have as much energy as legume hays, legumes have 50 to 75 percent more protein and three times as much calcium. However, a good quality grass hay will be a better source of nutrients than a low or medium-quality legume hay if it is more digestible and palatable.

The important thing about hay is to feed the right hay at the right time. The is no "best" hay. From an economical standpoint, the "best" hay is the hay that provides nutrients at the lowest cost. Palatability is important to the extent that the more hay sheep refuse the higher cost it will be.

An average quality grass hay is usually more than adequate for ewes during maintenance and in early to mid-gestation. Grass hay almost always meets the needs of mature rams and wethers. A mixed grass-legume hay can be fed to ewes in late gestation to meet their increased need for calcium and other minerals.

It is best to save legume hays, such as alfalfa, for the lactation diet due to their higher levels of protein and calcium. If a grass hay is fed during late gestation or lactation, it may be necessary to provide an additional source of calcium to pregnant ewes and supplemental calcium and protein to lactating ewes.

Kentucky bluegrass
 Native grasses
 Reed canarygrass
 Tall fescue

 Birdsfoot trefoil
Cow peas
 Red clover
 White clover/Ladino

If hay is not grown on the farm, it should be purchased (or priced) according to weight. A sheep's nutritional requirements are based on weight not volume and you will not know what it costs to feed your sheep unless you know how many pounds your sheep are eating and what the feed cost per unit of weight is. Wastage (or refusal) also factors into the cost of hay.

The weight of hay bales (small square, round, and large square) varies significantly and needs to be considered. When hay is purchased by the bale and you don't know what the bales weigh, you could be spending a lot more for hay than you think. It's seldom the other way around. Most hay auctions sell hay by the ton. If you buy hay from a farm, you can ask the farmer to sell you hay by the ton and weigh the load of hay on a commercial scale or you can weigh some representative bales, then negotiate a per bale price.

Purchasing hay: by the bale (volume) vs. by the ton (weight)

Price per bale
Weight of bale
Price per ton

Just because you produce your own hay does not mean it is free. If you produce your own hay, the cost to the sheep operation would be the "opportunity" cost of the hay. An opportunity cost is the value of a resource for its next-highest-value alternative. In the case of hay, this is usually the income you would receive from the hay if you sold it (less marketing costs).

Silage or Haylage (ensilage)

Silage (or ensilage) is a generic term for livestock feed that is produced by the controlled fermentation of high moisture herbage. Silage can be made from forage or grain crops. It has been successfully fed to sheep; however, special attention must be paid to quality, as moldy silage can cause listeriosis "circling disease." Listeriosis is an occasional cause of abortion in ewes. As compared to cattle, sheep are more susceptible to the negative effects of moldy silage. It is important that sheep consume silage before it has a chance to spoil. You should only put out the amount they can consume in a day.

As with fresh forage, the high-producing animal often cannot consume enough high moisture silage to meet its nutritional needs. Silage is typically fed on large farms, due to the need for storage and automated feeding equipment. It can be a more economical source of feed than traditional feeds. For small and medium sized flocks, silage bags make silage feeding a possibility.

It has become increasingly popular to feed baleage to sheep. Baleage is "wet wrapped hay." It is forage with a relatively high moisture content that is baled with a round baler, then sealed in a plastic bag or wrapped in plastic to keep oxygen out. While dry hay is less than 20 percent moisture and silage is usually more than 65 percent moisture, baleage is usually ensiled at 40 to 60 percent moisture. Baleage is easier to make in the spring, when rainfall is unpredictable.

Concentrates (grain)

Concentrates are feedstuffs that are high in nutrients. It is often necessary to feed concentrates to sheep to provide the nutrients that the forage diet is deficient in. This is particularly true in the case of high-producing animals. There are also times and situations where concentrates are a more economical source of nutrients than forages. Creep feeding and supplemental feeding of lambs has been shown to increase weight gains and market acceptability. The economics of supplemental feeding will vary by operation.

Energy feeds
There are two types of concentrate feeds: carbonaceous and proteinaceous. Carbonaceous concentrates or "energy" feeds are high in total digestible nutrients (TDN) but tend to be low in protein (8-11 percent protein). The most common energy feeds are the cereal grains: corn, barley, wheat, oats, milo (grain sorghum), and rye. Some by-product feeds are also high in energy.

It is usually not necessary to process grains (grind, crack, roll, or crimp) for sheep except for lambs that are less than six weeks of age and lack a functioning rumen. In fact, whole grain diets are healthier for the rumen because they require the animal to do its own grinding of the feed. Whole grain diets are less likely to cause digestive upsets, such as acidosis. Whole, uncooked (raw) soybeans may also be fed to sheep, but it is important to follow feeding guidelines.

While cereal grains are the most concentrated source of energy, they are high in phosphorus and low in calcium. Feeding a diet that is high in phosphorus and low in calcium can cause urinary calculi in rams and especially wethers. Inadequate calcium can lead to milk fever in pregnant or lactating ewes. It is important to understand that cereal grains are an energy source, not a complete feed.

Excessive or sudden intake of grain (starch) can cause numerous digestive and metabolic problems in sheep and lambs, including enterotoxemia (overeating disease), acidosis (grain overload), bloat, and polioencephalomalacia. The rumen always needs time to adjust to a higher concentrate diet, as there are different microbes for digesting starches and sugars versus cellulose (fiber). Grain should always be introduced and increased gradually.

Energy feeds

Percent TDN
 Whole cottonseed
 Wheat middlings
 Corn grain
 Wheat grain
 Milo (grain sorghum)
 Barley grain
 Corn gluten feed
 Ear corn
 Rye grain
 Soybean hulls
 Beet pulp pellets
 Oat grain

rotein feeds
Proteinaceous concentrates or "protein feeds" contain high levels of protein (usually over 20 percent). Examples include soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and fish meal. In the US, soybean meal is the most commonly fed protein supplement and often the most economical. Whole cottonseed is another common source of protein for livestock, especially in the South. By law, ruminant-derived meat and bone meal cannot be fed to other ruminants, including sheep. Fish meal is valued for its high level of by-pass protein. Roasted soybeans contain more by-pass protein than uncooked beans or bean meal.

Protein quantity is generally more important than protein quality (amino acid content) in ruminant diets because the microbes in the rumen manufacture their own protein. Livestock do not store excess protein; it is either burned as energy or eliminated (as nitrogen) by the kidneys. Feeding protein above NRC requirements will not usually increase productivity or carcass quality.

Since parasites often cause blood loss in sheep and lambs, higher levels of protein in the diet may enable the animal to mount a greater immune response to parasites, especially the blood-sucking barber pole worm. Research has shown that protein supplementation (above NRC requirements), especially by-pass protein, can reduce fecal egg counts in periparturient ewes.


Urea is not a protein supplement but is a source of nonprotein nitrogen (NPN) that rumen bacteria can use to synthesize protein. NPN should be used only in conjunction with high-energy feeds such as corn. Urea, which is 45 percent nitrogen and has a crude protein equivalent of 281 percent, should not supply over one-third of the total nitrogen in a diet. It should not be fed to very young lambs. It should be included in the same diet as raw soybeans.

Protein feeds

Percent CP
 Fish meal
 Soybean meal
 Whole soybeans
 Cottonseed meal
 Linseed meal
 Commercial protein supplement
 Corn gluten feed
 Poultry litter
 Distiller's grains
 Brewer's grains
 Whole cottonseed
 Alfalfa pellets
 Lick tubs

Commercial Feeds

Many feed companies offer "complete" sheep and/or lamb feeds. These are textured (sweet) or processed (pelleted) feed products which have been balanced for the needs of sheep of a specific age or production category. Complete feeds should not be mixed with other grains, because this will "unbalance" them. For example, adding corn to a complete feed will alter the Ca:P ratio and could result in urinary calculi in male lambs. It will also reduce the protein percentage.

Pelleted rations have an advantage in that the animals cannot sort feed ingredients. Sorting can be a problem when animals are on self-feeders and allowed to eat all they want. Pelleted diets are ideal for free choice self-feeding. Complete feeds come in 50 or 100 lb. sacks and tend to be more expensive than home-made concentrate rations. For small producers, inexperienced shepherds, and 4-H members, commercial feeds are usually recommended.

Pelleted Supplements
To help control feed costs, producers can mix their own simple rations by combining various feed ingredients, such as corn, soybean meal, and minerals. It is also possible to buy commercial pelleted supplements that contain vitamins and minerals, as well as high levels of protein (34-40%). These supplements can easily be combined with whole grains or by-product feeds to create balanced concentrate rations.

For example, combining 4 lbs. of corn with 1 lb. of a 36% protein pellet would result in a 16% protein ration that includes vitamins and minerals, making it a "complete" ration. This ration would be suitable for feeding lactating ewes or finishing feeder lambs. The pellets mix better with whole grains than soybean meal and loose minerals, which may fall to the bottom of the trough.

By-product feeds

There are numerous by-products that can be fed to sheep and lambs. Most by-products are available as a result of processing a traditional feed ingredient to generate another product. For example, corn gluten meal is a by-product of the corn milling process. Soybean hulls are a by-product of soybean processing for oil and meal.

Wheat middlings are a by-product of the flour milling industry. Beet Pulp is the vegetable matter, which remains after sugar is extracted from sliced sugar beets. Brewers grains is a by-product of the brewing industry. Citrus Pulp is the dried residue of peel, pulp and seeds of oranges, grapefruit and other citrus fruit. Sheep can also be fed waste products, such as cull onions and pumpkins, and out-dated (expired) human food stuffs.

By-product feeds can be economical sources of nutrients for sheep; but because they are variable, they should always be tested to determine their nutritive content. Some by-product feeds contain high levels of certain minerals. For example, distiller's grains are usually high in sulfur. This needs to be considered when balancing rations. The high moisture content of some by-product feeds could limit consumption of the diet resulting in poor animal performance. High water content may also make by-product feeds difficult to transport and store. By-product feeds are often incorporated into least cost rations or TMR's (total mixed rations).


Percent CP
Percent TDN
Alfalfa pellets
Beet pulp (dry)
Citrus pulp (dry)
Corn gluten feed
Corn stalks
Distiller's grains (dry)
Ear corn
Grain screenings
Kelp (dry)
Molasses (cane, dry)
Poultry litter (dry)
Soybean hulls
Wheat middlings
Whole cottonseed

Vitamins and minerals

Choosing the right mineral supplement for sheep can be very tricky. Sheep require macro and micro (trace) minerals and you need to know which minerals are deficient (or excess) in your area and in your feedstuffs. Mineral supplements range from plain white salt to trace mineralized salt (TMS) to complete mineral mixes containing all of the macro and micro minerals required by sheep.

In general, TMS fortified with selenium is all that is needed during the spring and summer when sheep are grazing high quality pastures containing more than 20 percent clover. Complete mineral mixes are recommended when sheep are consuming low quality forages. It's not necessary to offer minerals to sheep that are being fed complete feeds or TMRs.

Studies have clearly shown that selenium supplementation for pregnant ewes via the feed is preferred to selenium injections in late gestation. When high grain diets, certain alternative feeds, or silage are fed to sheep, additional calcium may be need to be added to the diet.

The most important minerals are calcium, phosphorus, salt (NaCl), and selenium.

Sources of calcium and phosphorus

% Calcium
% Phosphorus
  Dicalcium Phosphate
  Sodium Phosphate
  Alfalfa leaf meal
  Dried kelp
  Trace mineral mix

With the exception of salt, it has been scientifically proven that animals are unable to determine the proper balance and amount of minerals required when fed free choice. Some animals may consume more of what they do not need, while others may not consume enough (or any), even if they are required. It is therefore recommended, that minerals be thoroughly blended with the ration wherever possible to ensure proper supplementation. However if this is not possible, minerals can be mixed with loose salt.

Granular or "loose" forms of minerals are preferred to blocks. Blocks are hard on the teeth and consumption may be less than optimal. Performance may be better if loose minerals are fed. Mineral feeders should be full of fresh mineral, placed in readily available areas and protected from the weather. Sporadic feeding of minerals may cause animals to "binge". Coccidiostats can be incorporated into mineral mixes.

Sheep should not be fed commercial feeds and mineral mixes that have been formulated for other livestock because these products usually contain copper. While sheep have a dietary requirement for copper, they cannot tolerate excess copper in their diets. Excess copper is stored in the liver and can cause a toxic reaction, resulting in the death of the sheep.

Copper nutrition is complicated, involving interactions with other minerals (antagonists), including molybdenum, sulfur, and iron. Producers should not provide supplemental copper to their sheep unless a deficiency has been documented via laboratory testing. The mineral status of animals can be determined by having their livers or kidneys analyzed.

Feed Additives

A feed additive is a compound added to the ration for a purpose other than to supply nutrients. Various feed additives can be utilized to improve the health of sheep and lambs.

In the US, oxytetraycline is FDA-approved to feed to ewes to prevent abortions caused by chlamyida and vibrio (Campylobacter spp.). In order to do so, producers must obtain a written script (called a VFD) from their veterinarian. Including sub-therapeutic antibiotics in the feed of lambs is now prohibited.

Lasalocid (Bovatec®) and Monensin (Rumensin®) are ionophores that can be added to mineral mixes or complete rations. Ionophores improve feed utilization and gain in cattle by altering rumen fermentation. They are also coccidiostats. They kill coccidia, primarily during the sporozoite stage. Lasalocid (Bovatec®) is labeled as a coccidiostat for confined sheep.

Rumensin® is approved for use in goats and cattle. Its use in sheep must be prescribed by a veterinarian. Care must be taken when having Rumensin® mixed into rations, as there is a greater risk of toxicity. Decoquinate (Deccox®) is also a coccidiostat. Deccox® stops coccidia from growing. In contrast with Bovatec® and Rumensin®, Deccox® is a quinolone. It is safer to use than ionophores, but is more expensive. Bovatec® and especially Rumensin® can be toxic to equines.

Feeding Bovatec® or Deccox® to ewes prior to lambing may help to reduce the level of coccidia in the lambing environment. Rumensin® fed to ewes during late gestation may help to prevent abortions caused by toxoplasmosis. Other potential benefits to ionophores include reduced incidences of acidosis and feed lot bloat. Ionophores have also been shown to reduce livestock methane production (CH4) and nitrogen leaching.

Other feed additives
Ammonium chloride is often added to lamb rations to prevent urinary calculi (kidney stones). Ammonium chloride will help to acidify the urine. It should be added to the ration at a rate of 0.5 to 1.5 percent. It can also be mixed as a drench and used to treat lambs with early signs of urinary calculi.

Probiotics are just the opposite of antibiotics. They are living organisms of beneficial bacteria. Probiotics may improve animal performance by keeping livestock healthy and improving their digestion. Many commercial feeds contain probiotics. Milk replacers usually contain probiotics.

Other potential feed additives include essentail oils, yeast, rumen buffers (e.g. sodium bicarbonate), and toxin binders (e.g. mycotoxins). Similar to probiotics, research regarding the potential benefit of yeast and essential oils is still pending.

Feedstuffs for sheep and lambs


Late updated 19-Apr-2021 by Susan Schoenian.
Copyright© 2021. Sheep 101 and 201.