Supplementing a Sheep’s Diet

Sheep do pretty well eating grass and vegetation in your pasture, but not all vegetation is equal! There may be times where sheep need supplements to their diet to make up for a lack of a nutrient. The fastest way to find out what your pasture nutritional profile is like is to send sample for forage analysis, typically done by your state’s agricultural extension office. If you’re in Texas, you can find the link to send soil, forage, etc samples and payment here. On top of that, it would be good to do it at least once for each season.

The grass species present in our field, as an example, changes most between spring and summer. Cool-season annual grasses are quick to establish in early spring. They’ll often set seed and die back as the summer approaches in May. Meanwhile the perennial grasses are slower to “wake up” and often set seed at the end of summer, around August to September. At the start of fall, cool-season grasses, once again, begin to grow again. This natural cycle means the nutritional profile of the pasture changes from season to season and even from month-to-month as an individual grass grows. Even if you don’t get a forage analysis done, understanding this can be helpful when deciding whether or not to supplement a sheep’s diet and how to supplement.

When to Supplement

Supplementing your sheep’s diet can be a matter of when. Do you have a ewe who’s pregnant? Or do you have older sheep? Is it winter where they’re being fed indoors? Are they recovering from an illness? In these types of situations, they’re more likely to require nutritional supplements to upkeep their health. Especially when you start combining factors such: as an older ewe, pregnant, with twins (or triplets!) in winter. The amount of energy required by a sheep for base-level living has been noted many times in scientific literature often based on weight and for ewes, pregnancy, lactation, and other requirements. Think about when your sheep might lose weight, such as during low periods of rainfall, winter, or during a pregnancy if they can’t get enough food in their belly. Or they have fallen ill and need more energy and nutrition to recover. These are good times to supplement. But if the field is lush with plenty of grass and legumes to eat and everyone’s body score is sufficient? Not a good time to supplement, save the money for later.

Of course, if you’re feeding sheep indoors, it’s much easier to note nutrition as you’re the source for all their food. But if you’re pasture-raising them, it does become harder, hence the analysis. For our sheep, we do provide supplements at least once a week for protein as our pasture is lower in that nutrition. For pregnant ewes, we provide a grain-protein supplement at least two times a week, especially in the last month of pregnancy. For our older ewes, we have even done it up to three times a week because she was carrying twins in wintertime.

So what is your situation? Describe it and write it down. Examples can be:

  • 6 year old ewe in the last month of pregnancy, weighs about 100 lbs
  • 2 year old ewe, lactating twin lambs, weighs about 115 lbs
  • 2 year old ram, maintenance, weighs 150 lbs

From here, look at the tables for the baseline nutrition required by weight. Now you know how much to give your sheep, but real life is a bit complicated. What do you feed to reach those numbers?

What to Supplement

We know our situation, how much we need to feed, next is finding out what we have available to feed. Once we have all that information, then we can calculate a ration.

What to feed is a matter of what nutrition are you aiming for. Commonly, protein is a limiting nutrient, so you may have to feed legumes. Or maybe you want some extra energy, in which grains can help. Or it could even be a mixture of both, along with a mineral supplement. For mineral supplementation, a sheep mineral block is your best bet. A sheep will eat and lick it as they need. Make sure it’s sheep and not goat, as goat mineral blocks may have too much copper for a sheep which can be deadly in high amounts.

Common grains for supplement:

  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Sorghum (Milo)

Common legumes for supplement:

  • Soybean
  • Peanut
  • Alfalfa
  • Peas
  • Clover

Depending on your region you may find some grains and legumes not listed; you may also find some feed types to be cheaper than others. Right now sorghum and soybean meal are what we use, but there’s also corn and oats available at reasonable prices. Check around your local feed stores and compare. Once you have an idea of what grain and/or legume you want, look at the nutrition label on the package for the nutrition provided. If you don’t have a label, or maybe it got lost, you can look at this feed composition table to get some rough values expected.

Now that we have our 3 pieces of information: Sheep situation description, base energy required, and what we plan on supplementing, now we need to find the ration combination to feed the sheep. For that, you can use an Excel spreadsheet to calculate rations for you. The UME Sheep Ration Evaluator is a good, free, sheet to do just that. (It also has other valuable spreadsheets that may be of use to you). There’s other spreadsheets available as well such as the MSU Sheep Ration Program (Requires an account) or the Pearson Square ration formulation, which uses a quick formula of two feeds to calculate. Note that the Pearson Square linked uses metric units for that calculator.

Once you’ve followed the formulas, you’ll have a ration for your sheep and should be good to go; though, you might find you need to adjust the ration from time-to-time. If you plan on switching out the grains or legumes of your ration, do so over a period of time so that the sheep’s digestive system has time to adjust to the new formulation.

Cost of Supplementing

Supplementing your sheep’s diet is an additional cost. If you’re raising sheep for fun, as a pet, the cost may not be of too much concern. I’ve met people who fed their sheep molasses and pellets, while excellent feed, it is quite pricey. On our farm, we have used oats, sorghum, and corn as grains for the sheep. Soybean meal has been our legume of choice.

We initially started on only oats, but came to realize that the sheep were still lacking in protein for parts of the year and so added soybean meal to the ration. Then late last year, sorghum prices dropped quite a bit, prompting us to make the switch to sorghum. Right now, corn and sorghum are about the same price per 50 lb. bag depends on when you go in to buy. If corn stays lower, we’ll make that switch, but if not we’ll stick to sorghum.

We are fine with the cost as the supplements combined are not high in comparison to the benefits of healthier, happier, sheep. Right now our biggest cost is actually hay during the winter.

We are small enough as a farm that given our flock size, we have considered growing part of our supplements on-site. However, this has to balanced most notably the time aspect. We have done a couple small test plots of corn and sorghum, both of which do well if it rains. Key word if. Sorghum does better with less rain but still needs some. The sheep readily eat the sorghum and corn leaves too, providing an additional source of energy. We grew peanuts on a test plot which did well in foliage. We are still debating if we should grow out more. It might make sense for a bigger farm if they have the equipment already, such as in a mixed crop-livestock operation. Then supplementing on-site might make more sense from a financial perspective.

Another aspect is the pasture itself. Some parts of the pasture here grows ragweed, which despite it’s hatred as a weed, has high nutritional qualities. For us, this is a win-win. The ragweed grows on its own, readily, and in numerous amounts, especially around the pond. We have cut and harvested some during the summer for the sheep to eat while the field rested during May-June. This helped stretch our supplement supplies during the moderate drought.

All-in-all the hunt for us continues, though we’ll likely grow some sorghum and peanuts on a plot that’s manageable for us as we have to do it as manual labor. But whether we grow our own or purchase some, the sheep will get supplements to aid in their health. It would be irresponsible not to when they need that nutrition. Healthy, happy sheep lead to a healthy flock less prone to sickness and malnutrition, giving every sheep the best chance to have a healthy life.

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