Sheep: Feed and Forage Requirements - Frequently Asked Questions

Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 Normally the winter-feeding season is around 200 days - less in the south and longer in the north. When pastures impacted by drought for several years running ran out early last summer, producers started to feed their flocks. This led to one of the longest feeding periods in most producers’ experience. This year’s slow spring, low moisture levels and in some areas, grasshoppers, means there are still flocks in dry lots on feed. Producers with poor pastures are facing serious decisions.

Minimum forage requirements for healthy ewes - when looking at cutting hay costs, some producers are looking at simply cutting down the amount of hay. With careful ration management ewes can be maintained on reduced forage levels. For healthy rumen function, and to avoid rumen damage from acidosis or grain overload, a ewe needs to eat about 1.5 to 2 pounds of forage a day. Feeding some hay or grain will reduce the pressure on pastures, although when faced with the choice between old dry hay and new grass, ewes tend to leave the hay and graze the grass to its roots. Rotating the flock between corral and pasture helps once the ewes are used to the routine.

Seeding annual pastures for grazing saves perennial pastures from early grazing damage and overgrazing by supplying an alternative forage source. Annuals can be ready to graze approximately six weeks after seeding. Unlike perennial pastures, overgrazing an annual pasture is not an issue. Sheep do very well grazing cereal forage like oats, barley, fall rye, winter wheat, or triticale. Feeding some hay for the first week provides fiber and reduces scouring. Portable cross fencing to restrict the sheep to small paddocks means less wasted due to wandering and trampling. Extra growth that is not used for grazing can be harvested for winter. Creep gates can be used to give lambs access to areas separate from the ewes. The lambs can also be trained to come to hand-feeding or self-feeders. Portable minerals, salt and clean water are essential.

Predator monitoring and control are always issues with sheep on pasture. Good electric fences keep guardian dogs with the flock in new areas. A good de-worming program is also necessary, particularly for lambs. Annual pastures that are turned under can be an effective means of breaking the worm cycle in a flock. Annual pastures also provide grazing for lambs with little or no risk of them picking up worms.

Alternate forages - cereal and grass straws or greenfeeds can form the basis of ewe maintenance rations. Good hay or pasture can be saved for production periods with high nutrient demands - late pregnancy and lactation. Alternate forages can be high in fiber and low in nutrients. The critical point is not how much is being fed, but how much the ewe can eat. The small body of a ewe has only so much room for fiber, ten pounds of straw won't fit. A ewe requires certain amounts of nutrients to maintain her body, particularly if she is to carry a successful pregnancy. High fiber forages are an even greater nutritional challenge for the smaller bodied lamb. It is preferable to use minimal high fiber forages in lamb rations. If that is the only forage available have the forage processed into a total mixed ration.

Feed testing determines nutrient content of feeds including protein, energy and fiber level of forages. Testing can also warn of nutrients that may be missing. High levels of some nutrients can affect the availability of other nutrients. Forages, other than alfalfa, are usually short of calcium. A feed test is the best way to start and develop a balanced ration.

The business decision is crucial. Can your operation recover the cost of feeding your flock this year? Experience from the south says that you can't feed your way out of a drought–the debt incurred can drag down an operation for years to come. So what will work for your operation?

1.Review your financial status, talk to your accountant, banker or loans officer
2.Decide on your personal and business goals - expand, reduce, maintain, change direction
3.Talk regularly to your market. Will your marketing plan fit both your farm and the market demand? Will the market provide profitability in your operation? If not - what needs to change?
4.Fine tune your management:
  • Cull all nonproductive animals
  • Estimate feed requirements for remaining animals
  • Inventory all potential feed sources: straw, grains, hays, crop stubble, perennial and annual pasture, leased pasture,local resources that are not being used.
  • Plan how best to use each of the feed sources.
  • Look at alternate feeds that may be available locally - feed test and talk to a nutritionist about how to best use in rations.
  • Delay breeding so winter feed doesn't have to meet the high requirements of lambing and lactation.
  • Sample and test all feeds to fine-tune dollars spent on supplements used to balance deficiencies.
  • Monitor your feeding program by regular condition scoring - adjust feed accordingly
  • Monitor the marketplace and develop a plan that fits.
  • Cheaper feed is only profitable if the end product - the lamb - is the quality that the market wants.

Alberta Lamb Producers

For more information call the Ag-Info Centre at 310-FARM (3276)

Prepared by Susan Hosford, Business Development Specialist, Camrose and Dr Susan Markus, Ag-Info Centre, Stettler - Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Share via
For more information about the content of this document, contact Barry Yaremcio.
This document is maintained by Mary Ann Nelson.
This information published to the web on June 9, 2004.
Last Reviewed/Revised on November 26, 2013.