A large part of raising wool animals is knowing what to feed sheep in order to obtain good quality wool. Feeding choices will vary from place to place. The sheep farmers who have large acreage will raise sheep differently than the small property owner. Knowing what to feed sheep is going to be slightly different. Sheep and other wool and fiber producing animals are herbivores. They receive nutrients by eating plants. All animals require nutrients including protein, carbohydrate, fats, water, vitamins and minerals. Sheep will be getting these nutrients largely from eating plants, primarily grass pasture or hay. The nutrients provide energy, support growth and optimize body functions. A wool-producing sheep is not only maintaining her body, but also growing wool fleece. The growth of the wool doesn’t take a large increase in nutrients but the quality of the nutrients does make a difference in the quality of the wool.
What to Feed Sheep, What Type of Grazing and What Type of Concentrate
Pasture should be the main source of nutrition for sheep. If pasture is not available, a good quality hay can be just as good. Hay quality is variable and very weather dependent. Pasture that has been cut too late, or too early will greatly vary the nutrients available. Try to maintain as even a nutrition level as possible since sudden changes in diet can lead to severe problems in ruminants. Any sudden changes in diet can cause life-threatening complications in the rumen, or sheep bloat. Make any diet changes gradually to avoid problems.
Grains Added to a Diet of Grass and Hay
Adding grain to the sheep’s diet is a good way to increase nutritional value. This practice can be very beneficial during times of poor pasture quality. Some farmers will add grain to the sheep’s feed during winter when the primary nutrient source is hay. Use whole grains rather than processed or crushed. Crushed or ground grains can be dusty. Whole grains still have the vitamins and oils intact. While whole grains can be a good way to provide healthy nutrients, a diet of only grain will cause rumen inflammation. When pasture is not available, hay should be the main part of a healthy diet for sheep.
If you do not have traditional pasture, you may still be able to have a couple sheep. People who teach spinning for beginners might want to have a few sheep on their homestead producing raw wool. In colonial days, Suffolk sheep were often the dual purpose breed in use, with people keeping a few in their backyard. These sheep were kept on small lots, allowing them a place to graze. The shepherds knew what to feed sheep and made sure the flock received adequate grazing time.
Buying a Premixed Feed
If you have a large ranch and much pasture land full of grazing sheep, you most likely will mix your own grains for supplemental feeding. The smaller sheep herder will most likely purchase a premixed feed for sheep from a retail feed store. Check the label carefully, as all sheep feed is not created with the wool producing animal in mind. One important difference is copper. Copper is a mineral that is toxic to sheep. Copper is commonly included in products such as All Stock grain formulas, cattle feed, and goat feed. Generally, goats can tolerate copper, however, fiber producing goats such as Pygora and Angora breeds cannot tolerate copper. Toxicity builds often leading to sudden death. Learning to read the feed bag label is an important part of knowing what to feed sheep.
In addition to looking for copper, look at the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of the feed mix. This is the amount of nutrients that is actually available from the feed and is listed as a percentage.
What makes up a good ration for sheep? Quality grazing pasture of good quality hay, supplemented with a concentrate grain mixture, along with water, vitamins, and minerals are needed by sheep. The same applies to other wool producing ruminant animals, such as angora goats, llamas and alpaca.
Sheep will get protein from the pasture grass. Ruminants are able to derive the essential amino acids from plants. Wool-producing animals have a higher requirement for protein because they are producing wool. Adding legume supplement cubes, soybeans, and sunflower seeds will increase the protein intake. You will harvest a better quality of wool if you pay attention to the quality of the protein being fed to the sheep.
The plant matter is mostly carbohydrate. The carbohydrate in grasses is made up of sugars, starches, and fiber. Ruminants are able to digest the fiber portion of the plant because of the action of the rumen. The fermentation process, often referred to as chewing the cud, breaks down the lignins and cellulose. Hay and grasses should be the major part of the sheep’s feed.
Fats are essential to growth and fats also provide energy. Some of the essential vitamins are fat soluble, meaning they only work in the presence of fat. Sheep will receive the fat in their diet from the plants they eat.
Vitamins and Minerals
The soil provides the vitamins for the plant. When the sheep eat the pasture grass or the hay, they receive the vitamins. Small amounts of vitamins and minerals are required by the animals. A diet lacking in the essential nutrients will result in health problems. Too much of a vitamin or mineral can result in toxicity. Remember to use minerals mixed for sheep to avoid possible copper toxicity.
Probably the most important nutrient is water. Animals simply cannot live without water for more than a day or two. Water keeps all the organs in the body functioning and hydrated. And it transports waste out of the body in the urine and feces. Without water the temperature regulating mechanisms would shut down and nutrients would not be able to be used by the body. Providing clean water is essential to the daily tasks when feeding sheep and other wool producing animals. The weather has a large impact on how much water the animals will consume. It is important to monitor this and keep the water source full of fresh water. If you have nursing ewes, they will require more water as they produce milk. According to Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, Simmons and Ekarius, Storey Publishing, sheep will drink between one and two and a half gallons of water per day each. During hot weather, providing shady space with water access will keep your animals cooler.
Knowing what to feed sheep will help you harvest a beautiful wool fleece. The goal of any feeding program is to provide food containing all of the necessary components, providing energy, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water. Whether you are feeding a large flock of Romney sheep, or a few alpaca or Angora goats in the backyard, pay special attention the nutritional needs of wool producing animals. You will be rewarded with a beautiful fleece each spring.
Do you keep wool-yielding animals on your homestead? If so, what do you feed them for a beautiful fleece?