What Not To Feed Sheep {7 Things To Avoid}

Sheep are pretty easy to feed. They do best on open pasture with fresh forage and hay. Unfortunately, many modern day shepherds have problems with limited grazing facilities. This can lead to dietary mishaps. In this article, we review what not to feed sheep. Read on to learn more.

Things To Avoid When Feeding Sheep

sheep feeding tips

1. Keep litter picked up

A cluttered barn or sheep yard is a dangerous barn or sheep yard. One of the worst things your sheep can eat is the string that often holds a bale of hay together. Be sure to pick up and dispose of all string properly.

This also applies to feed bags, plastic bags and any other little thing a curious, bored sheep might pick up, chew and swallow.

2. Alfalfa is generally too rich for sheep

Although you might occasionally feed alfalfa hay or provide turnout on an alfalfa pasture for pregnant or nursing ewes and their babies or sheep recovering from illness, generally speaking alfalfa has too much protein and calcium for sheep.

Ongoing feeding of alfalfa can cause obesity, urinary blockage and kidney stones. Alfalfa hay leads to waste.

Buying The Right Feed For Your Sheep

3. Grain is generally too rich for sheep

Even though you will find sheep grain formulas at your local feed store, you should use these sparingly, if at all. Like alfalfa, grain mixtures are just too high in protein and fat to be used on a regular, ongoing basis. Consistent feeding of grain can cause obesity, kidney stones and laminitis.

If you need to provide more nutrition for your sheep, try timothy pellets and/or beet pulp. Note that both of these must be soaked in warm water for at least half an hour before presenting.

4. Rich pasture can cause bloating

Sheep allowed to graze freely of fresh, rich pasture in the springtime may experience problems with bloating, which is actually a very serious condition requiring emergency veterinary attention.

Clover or alfalfa pasture, or pasture containing unfamiliar plants can also cause this problem, especially if the foliage is wet from rain or dew. Always limit browsing time when pasture is especially rich and wet.

5. Mineral supplements formulated for other animals can kill sheep

While it is very important to supply your sheep with a good quality mineral supplement on a regular, ongoing basis, be sure that the supplement you choose is sheep safe.

Supplements formulated for other animals may contain minerals that are toxic to sheep. This is especially true of minerals formulated for goats, which contain copper.

6. Human foods and non-forage foods can kill sheep

Here is a list of human foods you should never give your sheep:

  • Dairy products
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Potatoes
  • Avocado
  • Turnips
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Meat
  • Kale

7. Some non-forage and ornamental plants can kill sheep

Ohio State University’s Sheep Team offers some useful information on plants that are poisonous to sheep.

In general, keep your sheep away from these:

  • Ponderosa Pine Trees
  • Lily Of The Valley
  • Red Maple Trees
  • Mountain Laurel
  • Rhododendrons
  • St. John’s Wort
  • Bracken Ferns
  • Chokecherry
  • Nightshades
  • Holly Trees
  • Plum Trees
  • Elderberry
  • Milkweed
  • Buttercup
  • Yew Trees
  • Foxglove
  • Hemlock
  • Oleander
  • Rhubarb
  • Azaleas
  • Cassava
  • Cherry
  • Lilacs
  • Poppy

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions sheep feeding
1. How much feed does a sheep need?

To maintain weight, a sheep should eat dry feed equaling between 2% and 4% of its body weight daily. This is just the bare minimum, though. Young animals need more feed to support growth. Dairy animals need more to support milk production. Animals that have been ill need more and specialized nutrition to support healing. The bottom line is, you must evaluate each animal and consult with your vet for specific dietary decisions.

2. How important is mineral supplementation for sheep?

Sheep have very high mineral requirements. They need large amounts of macro minerals: potassium, salt (sodium + chloride); magnesium; phosphorus; calcium; sulfur. They also require small amounts of trace minerals: molybdenum; manganese; selenium; fluoride; copper; cobalt; iodine; iron; zinc. It is important to pay close attention to the amounts and balance of mineral supplementation provided. Excesses, deficiencies and imbalances can result in a wide variety of easily avoidable health conditions. This is why use of a high quality sheep feed and good quality forage is advised.

3. What kind of vitamins do sheep need?

Like people, sheep need both water soluble and fat soluble vitamins. Even though sheep can synthesize water soluble vitamin C, they also need a dietary source of it, such as fresh, green grass. B vitamins are also water soluble, and sheep are able to synthesize these in the rumen. This is also true of fat soluble vitamin K. The other necessary fat soluble vitamins are A, D and E. Luckily, providing proper feeding of high quality sheep feed and ample grazing will keep sheep well supplied with all of these vitamins.

4. Is it ever necessary to provide additional vitamin and mineral supplements?

If your sheep have been stressed, extra supplementation of B vitamins can be helpful. Additionally, there is a practice called “flushing” in which ewes are given a boost of vitamins and minerals, along with added calories and nutrition, at the start of the breeding season. It is believed that this practice not only helps the ewes gain weight and condition, but also contributes to the overall health (and perhaps even number) of their offspring.

5. Is it a good idea to use a creep feeder for lambs?

Providing a creep feeder (a feeder that is gated so that only small lambs can enter, but adult sheep cannot) is a very good way to provide extra nutrition to lambs, along with any supplements or medications you want to give them separately from the ewes. A creep feeder gives lambs the opportunity to learn about eating feed independently without having to compete with adult sheep.

Final Words

Feeding sheep the right way is very important if your farm relies on the meat or wool production from your sheep stock. Keep the above tips in mind when deciding on what not to feed to your sheep.

5 thoughts on “What Not To Feed Sheep {7 Things To Avoid}”

  1. excellent article as we feed food waste from the grocery stores. We are part of the loop program and pick up 80 boxes from grocery stores every week. I did not know that cassava was toxic to sheep. What is wrong with potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and turnips ? Granny Patti from Alberta, Canada

    • Potatoes are members of the hemlock family. When fed raw, they can be toxic, especially if the potato skins are green.

      Cabbage, broccoli and turnips are all cruciferous vegetables. They are very gassy and can cause bloating and colic in non-ruminants. They may be problematic for sheep, but if you have fed them without problems, follow your own experience.


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