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Sheep are becoming increasingly popular as pets, whether as "living lawnmowers" or for self-sufficiency in meat or wool. However, they are not a sure-fire success when it comes to species-appropriate nutrition.

What do sheep eat?

Sheep are herbivores and generally relatively undemanding grazing animals. Older breeds often need nothing more than good pasture in summer and the best hay in winter. A useful addition to this are mineral licks. This way your sheep get all the nutrients they need. However, if the animals are supposed to give milk, regardless of whether they are milked or suckling lambs, then this feed is usually not sufficient. This applies above all to so-called high-performance breeds that give a particularly large amount of milk. The performance animals also include so-called meat sheep breeds, which are ready for slaughter faster than other breeds.
Sheep feed can basically be divided into the following categories:

  • Roughage: Grass, hay, straw, leaves and bark of deciduous trees
  • Concentrated feed: industrial or natural
  • Mineral feed: salt lick without copper
sheep in the pasture

Attention: Copper is poisonous to sheep, so it should not be included in salt licks. If your sheep graze together with other animals, make sure that the sheep can only reach their own salt licks and do not poison themselves with those of the other animals.

Vital: grass and hay

Sheep are ruminants, so they spend most of their day digesting food. They also get every last bit of nutrients out of their food. Feed that is too high in energy makes sheep fat and sick. For this reason, grass and hay are the most important forages. They contain a high proportion of woodchip. For frugal breeds (e.g. Heidschnucke, Skudden or Pomeranian sheep) this feed is usually sufficient. Sheep prefer stalks up to about 15 centimeters long. Then it is particularly nutritious and tasty. Sheep are among the so-called selective eaters. They always eat what tastes best to them. As a result, a large pasture in particular is not eaten evenly. You should therefore mow once or twice a year.

Tip: In the spring, the fresh grass is particularly rich in protein and can easily trigger digestive problems. Therefore, at the beginning of the grazing season, do not let your sheep graze for too long and only increase the time slowly. Then the digestive tract can adapt better to the changed food supply.

Living lawnmowers?

Sheep are often referred to as "living lawn mowers" and are often kept as such. However, ornamental lawns, such as those that grow in most gardens, are not species-appropriate food for sheep. It lacks the right pasture grasses and various herbs that contribute to keeping the animals healthy. On the other hand, if you have a meadow with various grasses and herbs behind your house, then this is definitely a good source of food for sheep. The prerequisite is, of course, that the meadow is large enough or is fed accordingly.

How do I feed hay and straw?

Occasionally the opinion can be heard that straw does not need to be added if it is present in the litter. However, this approach can quickly lead to sick sheep, in the worst case even to the death of the animals. Because the straw in the bedding gets dirty, not only from dust and dirt, but also from urine and other excrement from the animals. Straw should therefore be fed in a rack.

Tip: Bedding is not sheep feed!

The same applies to hay, of course, which the sheep usually prefer to eat and also contains more nutrients. Make sure the hay is of good quality. You can tell the quality above all by the color and smell. It should smell fresh and of herbs, not musty or even mouldy. Freshly cut hay is greenish, not yellow or grey. The older the hay gets, the more the color and scent fade. The stem length and strength also play a role in quality. Firm (coarse) and long stalks indicate late mowing, then the grass then contains fewer nutrients.

The hay rack

So that your sheep always have clean hay and straw to eat, you should offer it in a rack. This should be at a comfortable height for the animals. Ideally, several sheep can eat at the same time without getting in each other's way. If the hay rack is too high, falling hay can get caught in the wool and become matted. A low rack, on the other hand, leads to contamination of the hay with saliva, which should also be avoided.

Make absolutely sure that the hay does not get wet in the rack, otherwise it will easily start to mould. As a result, your sheep will quickly become ill, and digestive problems are then only the smallest evil. Either hang or place the rack in the stable or shelter, or use a rack with a sufficiently large roof. Nevertheless, you should check the hay regularly for moisture and replace it if necessary.

Concentrated feed for sheep

Depending on the performance you want your sheep to perform, they may need additional concentrates. Performance includes, for example, pregnancy and childbirth and possibly milk production. But even faster meat growth or a large amount of wool require a lot of energy. The administration of concentrated feed is always a tightrope walk. If sheep get too much of it, they quickly become fat and often sick. In addition, industrially produced sheep feed costs money, which means that small-scale sheep farming may become unprofitable or an expensive hobby. Alternatively, you can use natural concentrated feed. You only give this to the animals that really need it.

Natural concentrated feed

Natural concentrated feed is not industrially produced and is often unprocessed. An exception is dried beet pulp, which is produced during the processing of sugar beets. You can find some concentrated feed in your garden or in the kitchen. You can look for other feeds in the forest or get them from the local farmer.
Sheep feed from your own household:

  • carrots
  • beets
  • Fruit in small quantities (apples, pears and other varieties, except stone fruit)
  • dry bread
  • cooked potatoes
  • boiled potato skins

Tip: Large amounts of fruit can cause digestive problems in sheep. This also applies to fallen fruit. Therefore, do not let your sheep graze on an orchard during the ripening period.

Concentrated feed from the forest

  • beechnuts
  • Acorns (not English oaks!)
  • chestnuts

Sheep feed from the farmer

  • barley
  • oats
  • legumes
  • bran
  • Corn
Zea mais

feeding in winter

Robust breeds of sheep can remain on the pasture all year round, but they do not always find enough food there. In heavy snowfall, the grass is almost inaccessible to the animals. Persistent rain, which often occurs in autumn and winter in northern Germany, not only damages the pasture, but also the feet of your sheep. Therefore, the animals absolutely need a dry surface and often a separate feeding. First and foremost, this should consist of very good hay. To supplement, give fresh food such as turnips or occasional vegetable waste.

Tip: Always give your sheep small portions, they don't like stale feed. They often don't even touch it.

Forbidden for sheep

Sheep are not omnivores and can easily suffer from digestive problems if fed the wrong kind of food. These often only occur when larger quantities are consumed, which is why these plants are not directly considered poisonous. Nevertheless, they should not be fed or allowed to grow unhindered on the sheep pasture.

Little or no suitable feed

  • rushes
  • buttercup
  • Curled dock
  • tansy
  • grass hair grass
  • sorrel
  • sour grasses
  • sedges
  • Marsh marigold (buttercup)
  • meadowfoam
  • meadow cranesbill

There are also numerous plants that are actually poisonous to sheep. Their consumption can lead to the death of the animals. Such plants should therefore never be in a sheep pasture and should be removed immediately. Also think of potentially poisonous trees. Sheep like to nibble on the bark or hanging branches. Of course, this also applies to trees on the neighboring property whose branches hang over the pasture fence.

Toxic plants

  • bracken
  • yew
  • thimble
  • autumn crocus
  • Ragwort
  • tree of life
  • horsetail
  • sweet clover
  • pedunculate oak

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