Do Sheep Eat Hay?

feeding our sheep on pasture with a bale unroller

Most livestock, like horses and cattle, eat hay, but what about sheep? Do sheep eat hay, as well, or do sheep normally eat something else?

Sheep eat hay when grass or other grazeable forages are no longer available to them. Sheep eat hay from many types of plants, but mainly grasses. Sheep can be fed hay in the winter, when the grass no longer grows or during times of forage storages, like drought.

We most commonly think of sheep as being outside on a nice green pasture, grazing peacefully. But, grass, whether in the pasture or in your lawn, doesn’t grow all year, so what do sheep eat then?

Best Hay For Sheep shows you how to pick out the hay you need for your sheep, based on your flock’s nutritional needs.

Sheep eat hay

Sheep are commonly fed hay as a source of roughage (long stemmed plant material) for their diet. Sheep are ruminants, like cattle and goats, so they are well built to digest plants in both fresh and dried (hay) forms.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? gives you some insight into the easier and the more challenging aspects of keeping sheep.

Hay is fed to sheep when there is no more grass

Hay is usually fed to sheep in the winter, since the pastures are not growing then and anytime throughout the year when the sheep need more forages (plants to eat) than they can get themselves.

Hay makes up for lack of pasture due to drought and limited pasture space, which I am defining as having more sheep than the area can grow a year’s worth of forages for. In this case the sheep eat pasture part of the year then hay.

This is how we feed our main flock of sheep on pasture.
They are fed from mid November through early to mid April, when the grass starts growing again.

We feed our sheep hay every winter

We feed our sheep hay for the winter months, which are normally mid November through early to mid April here in Ohio.

Even though the main ewe flock is outside all year on pasture, they are fed hay to make sure that they have enough to eat every day.

Farms and ranches in states south of here will have much longer grazing seasons and have a shorter winter hay feeding window. In the really hot areas, they do not have grass growth in summer, it’s too hot, so they feed hay in the heat.

How Many Bales Of Hay Do Sheep Need? helps you figure up the hay needs for your flock.

Hay is fed during forage shortages, like drought or heavy snow

Every once in a while, even on a farm that normally has plenty of year round grazing for the sheep, there are forage shortfalls.

These shortfalls are usually due to crazy weather, like drought, where the grass just plain does not grow, but can also be due to heavy snow, since the grass is there but the sheep can’t get to it!

Either way, the sheep need to eat and if they don’t have grass or can’t get to it, they need hay.

Is hay good for sheep?

High quality hay is good for sheep. Low quality hay is good for bedding or mulch.

If sheep are eating a well made hay, they are getting a species appropriate diet that will have nearly all of the benefits of pasture.

7 Tips To Choose High Quality Hay shows you how to evaluate hay to make sure you are getting hay that your sheep will eat once you get it home!

Can sheep eat too much hay?

Sheep will eat hay until they are full. As long as the hay is a well made first cutting, they are probably not going to eat too much of the hay. If the hay is a later cutting, sheep can overeat and upset their digestion.

Sheep eating first cutting hay is like you eating vegetables. Vegetables are good for you and you can eat as many as you want. You are unlikely to overeat vegetables. The same is true with sheep and first cutting hay.

If the hay is one of the more energy packed cuttings, like a 2nd or 3rd cutting, especially if the hay is a high proportion alfalfa, then the sheep will eat that hay more like kids eating candy and end up with the same upset stomach!

This type of hay is almost too nice and must be given in small amounts or only given to sheep that need the extra energy like growing lambs or ewes (mom sheep) that are milking.

Can sheep live off hay?

Sheep can live off of hay. Most sheep seem to prefer grass to hay, but when the grass is not growing or there is not enough for their needs, hay will be fine for the flock.

I need to mention that all hay is not equal. Hay that is well made is good hay worthy of feeding your sheep. Poorly made hay or hay that is damaged (rained on or improperly stored) on is going to have diminished feeding value.

The point here is that sheep can easily live off of good hay, but living off of poor quality hay is like you living off of fast food, it’s a bad idea and eventually your health will suffer for it.

Sheep that are kept indoors would be living off of hay, and, most likely grain, year round. Most sheep would be outside, at least part of the year, so would eat some grass and some hay, depending upon the time of year.

Which type of hay should sheep be eating?

Sheep should, generally speaking, be eating hay made from the most common plants, especially grasses, that are grown for forages in your area. If it’s a grass and the sheep will eat it fresh it can also make good hay.

Common plants made for hay in my area are:

  • Orchard grass
  • Alfalfa
  • Oats
  • Timothy

Unless you live in an area similar to mine, the common hay available will be made from different forages than the ones on my list. That’s to be expected, go with what is normal in your area.

All of these forages, when made on time, will make great hay for sheep. With the exception of the oats, these forages will regrow and produce additional cuttings off of the same field, just like your lawn regrows.

Not all forages make good hay, for instance anything with fleshier leaves, like brassicas will not dry down well, so is grazed by sheep rather than harvested for hay.

Be cautious of “brood cow” hay

A caution on “brood cow hay”, some of the not so well made hay is sold for brood cows, which is usually code for not very good hay. This hay is usually very low quality and will not be worth your money for your sheep.

Don’t buy this stuff for your sheep, unless you are using it as bedding. Get a nicer, made on time hay that is worth your money and will provide nutrition to your sheep.

Which cutting of hay should sheep get?

Sheep should get the cutting of hay and the type of hay that matches their nutritional needs. This is a non specific answer because the needs of your sheep will change throughout the year.

1st cutting hay is for sheep with maintenance energy needs

For most sheep with maintenance energy needs, a nice first cutting hay will be perfect. Maintenance energy needs sheep are adult rams, open ewes that are not nursing and ewes in early gestation.

What Is 1st Cutting Hay? shows you how to spot good (and not so good) first cutting hay.

Ewes in late gestation, lambs and ewes that are milking all need more energy than a first cutting hay will provide.

2nd and 3rd cutting hay are for sheep with higher energy needs

Sheep that need more energy are the groups that should be eating 2nd or 3rd cutting hay, rather than first cutting.

1st Or 2nd Cutting Hay? goes over the differences in hay and how to spot the hay that will work for your flock.

Higher energy sheep are: lambs, both weaned and those eating out of a creep feeder, any replacement stock that is still growing and ewes that are in the later stages of pregnancy or are milking.

These sheep need more energy per bite of hay and can use that energy for their work, which is growing or milking.

Suggestions for further reading on feeding sheep hay

What’s For Dinner? is a Sheep 101 article going over the many things that sheep can eat, including hay. If you have never been on this site, click around, there are some great articles covering many aspects of raising sheep.

A Quick Guide To Hay Feeding On Meadows And Pastures is a West Virginia Extension Service article that has guidelines for hay feeding on pasture.

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