What Animals Eat Barley?

If you want to know what animals eat barley, the answer is all kinds, particularly farm animals. Often it is combined with other ingredients to form just a small part of their daily ration. It has become popular to use sprouted barley to feed cattle, especially during droughts or harsh winters. Barley is a versatile feed and useful when given in small quantities as an element of a more complex feed. 

What Farm Animals Eat Barley?

What Farm Animals Eat Barley

In the west, many farm animals are fed barley – sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, poultry, rabbits, and horses. Barley isn’t usually given as a stand-alone feed but is combined along with other ingredients to produce a food that is balanced for the nutritional needs of the individual animal. 

Animal feed must supply the necessary energy and nutrients through carbohydrates along with protein (in the form of amino acids), fats, minerals, and vitamins. 

The amounts of these elements will depend on each animal species, their environment, intended use, age, sex, and condition.

One of the main problems when feeding large quantities of barley in an animal’s daily ration is excessive weight gain. This can be problematic as it causes excess fat to be developed on meat animals and can cause health issues in others. 

Barley Grain Poisoning

Ruminant farm animals such as sheep, goats, and cattle when fed too much grain can suffer from a condition called Acidosis. This slows the gut processes and causes dehydration and even death. 

Once eaten, the grain releases the carbohydrates it contains into the animal’s rumen. Here, it ferments rapidly and cannot be digested normally. Excess amounts of Lactic Acid are formed by the bacteria present in the rumen, initially causing bloating and pain. 

The lactic acid draws excessive amounts of fluid into the rumen from the surrounding body tissues and even from the animal’s blood. This results in dehydration. It may cause the blood to become more acidic in severe cases, which can result in heart failure, kidney failure, and death.

It isn’t only barley that can cause this condition, wheat, oats, and lupins have also been known to result in acidosis. 

Crushed, cracked or hammered grain can be even more problematic, as the partial breaking down of the grain means the carbohydrate is released even more quickly.

Some common causes of grain overload include:

  • Stock having been given grain too quickly without a gradual introduction
  • Animals feeding in fresh paddocks where grain may have been spilled or has been left unharvested
  • A sudden change in diet when bringing animals in
  • Stock helping themselves to grain or pellets they should not have access to

Symptoms of grain overload:

  • Diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Thirst and dehydration
  • Bloating of the left side of the abdomen
  • Lying down
  • Staggering
  • Spread legs
  • Death

Treatment for grain poisoning

Grain poisoning will need to be treated quickly and may include intravenous fluids, bicarbonate of soda drenches, milk of magnesia, intraluminal antibiotics, steroid injections with thiamine, or surgery.

A veterinarian will need to be consulted to decide on the best plan of treatment for the affected animal or animals. 

It may take as long as six weeks or more for an animal to recover while the rumen repairs.

Secondary infections such as liver abscesses are not unusual. Some animals never properly recover and will require culling. 

Preventing Acidosis

Acidosis can be prevented by ensuring stock are only introduced to a grain ration gradually and recommended quantities are not exceeded. 

Start by introducing lupins or oats first as they are less likely to induce acidosis. 

Sheep should be given no more than 50 grams per head, per day to begin with and this can gradually be increased by 50 grams a day until the full ration is being fed. 

Cattle can be started on 500 grams per head a day with an additional 500 grams per day for four days.

It is essential that roughage in the form of high-quality hay and or silage is provided and be freely available. This is unless a complete (combined) ration is being fed.

To transition from oats to barley or wheat – first, substitute 25% of the oat ration. Continue to give an additional 25% every five days for 16 days or less if you wish to maintain a combined ration. 


  1. Day 1. = 500g of oats is replaced by 125g barley and 375 grams of oats.
  2. Day 2, 3, 4, 5 = as day 1.
  3. Day 6 250g barley, 250g oats.
  4. Day 7, 8, 9, 10 = as day 6.
  5. Day 11. = 375g barley, 125g oats.
  6. Day 12, 13, 14, 15 as day 11.
  7. Day 16. = 500g barley.

While making the switch over, carefully monitor your stock for any signs of illness including depression, lethargy, scouring, lameness, etc. as this could indicate the transition is too fast.

It is also a wise precaution to check that pulpy kidney vaccinations are fully up to date before feeding grains. 

Acidosis is a potentially fatal condition, so please refer to expert information on this topic or speak with a veterinary surgeon.

Feeding Barley to Poultry

Because chickens don’t manufacture many of their own amino acids, unlike pigs or ruminants, they need to be provided with them in their feed. Barley can be useful for this but unfortunately, it isn’t particularly palatable to chickens who will often turn their beaks up at it. 

Try adding barley to their diet slowly. It should only ever make up a maximum of 15% of the recommended daily ration, as it can also cause them to become overweight. 

Feeding Barley to Pigs

Barley can be a useful feed for pigs, due to the grains having a hull (outer shell) like oats, they are a higher fiber feed than many other small grains. It also has a higher bioavailability of between 20% and 30% when compared with corn at 10% to 15%.

Barley is also useful for keeping your pigs warm during cold weather. This is because it has a high heat increment content, increasing heat produced during digestion.

It is a good grower or finisher ration and performs equally as well as corn. In fact, it can produce a higher quality of fat than corn diets despite being lower in energy. This is because pigs will adjust the quantity they need for energy by eating more. 

Some pig farmers combine barley with other small grains for optimum results.

Sows can be fed solely on barley grain during gestation, but for lactation, it should be limited to no more than 85%. For weaning piglets, the diet should contain no more than 25% barley due to the high fiber content. 

The fiber can be beneficial in reducing diarrhea, as it has a prebiotic effect on the gut, making it useful for starter pigs. 

Do Dairy Cows Eat Barley?

Dairy cows are fed barley as it can help to increase milk yields.Care must be taken to prevent overfeeding, as it can be a cause of a variety of illnesses including acidosis, laminitis, fatty liver, liver abscesses, bloat and displaced abomasum. 

This video shows how to sprout barley to feed to cattle:

Is Barley Used to Feed Beef Cattle?

As we learned earlier, barley grain can be used to feed cattle. For beef cattle barley fairs favorably when compared to corn, sorghum, wheat, oats or field peas. Although its energy value is less than in corn, sorghum or wheat, this is due to its fiber content. 

The crude protein content of barley is actually higher than in corn and more comparable to oats or wheat, although field peas contain more.

It will be necessary to supplement calcium in a high-grain beef cattle diet because the levels of calcium are typically low in all grains. 

It is generally desirable to feed barley with the highest possible protein content. To achieve this using a hull-less barley that has a lower fiber content and higher protein level can be advantageous.

Whole Barley

As we have already discovered, whole barley is high in fiber as it has a hard outer shell and inner bran layer surrounding the seed. This makes it less valuable as a high-energy and protein feed than types of processed barley.

The digestibility of whole barley is around 52.5% while the percentage for dry-rolled barley increases significantly to about 85.2%. 

Dry Rolled Barley

Dry rolling or crushing barley smashes open the hard kernels, making them crack and exposing the inner parts of the grain. It is best to keep the barley quite coarse to help reduce the risk of fermentation in the rumen causing acidosis.

Supplements can be added to the feed such as ionophores, or certain yeasts to help keep the rumen stable.


Barley is a popular feed for many farm animals, including cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and chickens.

Care must be taken when giving it to ruminants, due to the range of ailments overfeeding can cause.

It is useful for helping animals gain weight, providing energy during cold winters or for using as a component in a balanced, combined feed.

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