By Kimberly Thimmig – If you’re wondering what to feed sheep to save a little money and reduce waste on your homesteading land, then let me tell you a story about a rainy summer in Wisconsin. As we were trying to plant our corn, we had massive amounts of rain from several storms. The plantings were late, on land that was worked too early, resulting in a poor stand of corn on some of our land. We were fortunate enough to have had a fair amount of our corn planted and growing before the rains came and overall we had good crop harvested in spite of a cool summer, although it was late and not as dry as we wanted. Anyway, on the headlands of one of the wettest fields nearest the barns the corn was only two-to-four feet tall in early August. I knew it would never mature in time before the frost. Since it had not rained much in summer and the pastures were doing the usual late summer browning, I decided to feed the cornstalks to the sheep, saving my hay for winter. This would maximize the yield from the acreage using the whole stalk instead of waiting for a dubious harvest of stunted ears or maybe nothing at all.
What to Feed Sheep? An Efficient Feed!
I used a lopping shears, cutting each stalk several inches from the ground. I threw them in to the sheep, having no idea how much of the stalk they would eat. They ate every inch of those stalks—not a bit left. You would never find any leaves or tassels or anything left. No waste at all. That is what I call efficient use of feed. Each sheep seemed to like a different part. Some went directly for the ear with the corn juice dripping from their mouths as they munched. Some of the larger sheep preferred the stalks; the lambs liked the tender leaves.
Consider the total weight of feedstuff involved here. When I was cutting, I could only carry maybe 20 or so stalks at a time even though they were short. Field corn is taller than sweet corn, reaching 8-10 feet in a normal year, so they are very heavy. With more animals, a cart or wheelbarrow would be handy for transporting larger amounts or several days worth at a time. Corn around here has a plant population average of about 20-25,000 per acre in 30” rows. That adds up to about 20-30 or more tons of feed per acre, as farmers figure it, chopped into the silo. That is when the plants have dried down a little, later in September. A corn plant has a great deal of moisture in it.
Feeding sheep stalks added a few minutes to my chores each day but I enjoyed going out and cutting every morning, and with the dew still on the plant, they did not seem to lose much moisture even by the next day. I experimented and found that I could cut enough for three days without losing an appreciable amount of moisture from the corn. If it’s piled too thickly and left too long it will start to heat and decay, of course. I also noticed how much less water the sheep drank because of the moisture provided by the corn.
As the weeks went by, I kept cutting but the field never seemed to get much emptier. It was like the oil in the jar; I kept using it and it never ran out! Thinking again about the 20-25,000 plants per acre you can see what I mean. I cut stalks for my 30 sheep until it was combined in November. Even then the corn looked dried and brown they still loved it and only at the very end did they leave maybe the bottom foot or so of the thickest stalks.
Too Much Grain
Then I bought portable electric fencing and let them into the fields to graze the fallen leaves and corn that the combine had missed. If you are considering what to feed sheep, this might be a logical solution vs. hauling the corn stalks to them. One caution here, they can find and eat a lot of stray corn kernels in a small about of time. The first day I let them in there less than an hour. They had noticeably running stools the next day from too much grain.
This would work great for flushing your animals if your breeding time coincides with the harvest, although many people breed earlier than that. I just hate to think of all the corn that ends up on the ground even with the most careful combining. We take pails into the fields and pick up corn and dump it into the pickup.
Even if you don’t have room to plant any corn of your own, you could ask to glean a farmer’s fields. Homesteading today is all about working cooperatively. There is a great deal of corn waiting to be picked up. Remember to thank the farmer in some way so he remembers you next year when you want to come. Ask farmers near you if they chop corn into the silo. Many times the outside rows get run down when the chopper goes through the first time around, and this way the corn wouldn’t be wasted. Or, agree to buy a certain number of outside rows or a small fraction of a field.
You really don’t need much in the way of equipment to get started. Once the land is worked, planting can be accomplished either with a hoe, by a two-row, hand-push planter or a two- or four-row corn planter. There are many older planters around if you are inclined to fix one up, or ask a neighbor farmer. One man near us has a 12-row planter with sides that fold up. It barely fits on the road but, boy, would that plant our 40 acres fast! We have an older four-row planter that works great and was dirt cheap. One-row, hand-push planters are available through some of the “general store” type catalogs and are a good investment.
“Knee High by the 4th of July”
Don’t plant corn too early or it will sit in the ground and not germinate. Your expensive seed will rot or the insects will get it. Here in Wisconsin I would say our corn is usually planted just before most of the gardens in the area go in. We try for mid-May but it can be as late as June 15th. In order for it to mature before frost the saying here is, it’s got to be “knee high by the 4th of July,” but even if it’s late, hot weather in August can help it catch up.
Once it is four inches tall, you can begin cultivation if there are weeds. Again, this can be done mechanically or the traditional way with a hoe, walking the rows. If you plan ahead and plant in rows that you can get a tiller through, you can do a shallow tilling, but wait until the corn is taller so the roots are deeper and the dirt doesn’t knock over the corn plants. A few weeds are not too serious, and if the corn gets a good start, pretty soon it will shade out many of the weeds. If your patch isn’t too big you could consider mulching it with chopped straw or composting grass clippings, which is a great way to add organic matter to the soil as well.
A small plot of corn can go a long way. Start with a quarter or half acre or more and share the work with friends. A $50 investment in seed corn will plant almost three acres, having about 80,000 seeds per 50 lbs. bag. If you don’t use it all, store it in a cool, dry place and it will be fine for the next year. Always read and follow directions for safe handling of seed since seed corn is treated (it’s pink!)
I hope this helps you answer the question what to feed sheep that’s cost-effective and good for your homestead. So, go ahead, try it—plant some corn for your animals. They will love you for it! If you are just starting to think about raising livestock, here’s some great information about how to raise sheep.
Originally published in 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.