Do Sheep Need Water?

sheep grazing with electric netting fence

Sheep need water, but does it all have to come from the water trough? Can sheep get water from other sources so they don’t need to drink fluid water, at least for some parts of the year?

Sheep need fluid water when they are in the high energy needs parts of their lives, in warm to hot weather and when they are eating a diet of dry, instead of moist, forages. Sheep do not need to drink fluid water when the amount of water in their diet exceeds the water needed for the day.

Sheep need higher levels of fluid water in certain times, like lactation or hot weather and little to no fluid water when grazing good pastures in the winter.

Sheep Profits goes over the things you should be planning into your budget when considering sheep as a business.

Sheep in this situationDo they need to drink water?
grazing lush pasture in cool weatherno
winter grazing other forages, like turnipsno
grazing in the heatyes
grazing in mild weather with heavy dewmaybe
eating hayyes
fast growing lambsyes
eating supplemental feedsyes
Sometimes sheep can get all the water they need from the forages that they eat, sometimes they can not. Here’s a quick look into which is which.
Here’s a look at our main flock in the turnips. These could be used for winter grazing, but it suited us better to have the sheep eat them in the fall.

Sheep need water when lactating

Sheep will need extra water when they are lactating. The higher the milk production per ewe the more additional water and food she’ll need to take in to support her lambs.

Ewes that are milking more are ewes that have more than one lamb and ewes that are in the earlier part of lactation, rather than ewes with older lambs.

Lambs need water as they grow

The lambs themselves need additional water to keep up with their quickly growing bodies. Especially if those lambs are getting supplemental feed, in the form of a high quality hay or other snack in a creep area.

Creep feeds, whether forage based or a concentrate, like a bagged lamb feed, will increase the water needs of the lambs, in order to process those extra calories from the creep.

Sheep Creep Feeder is an article I wrote explaining a few different ways to have a lamb creep area and why you might consider setting one up.

Sheep do not always need fluid water

If the sheep are in a low energy requirement part of their lives and are eating a high moisture diet, like grass, they are unlikely to need additional fluid water, as long as the temperatures are also mild.

The diet of stock has a large influence on their water requirement. Good green pasture can supply all an
animal’s water needs.

Water Requirements For Sheep And Cattle dpi.nws.gov.au

Both the sheep and the weather have to match up for the sheep to not need fluid water.

If the sheep are in early gestation and on good grass but the weather is hot, they need access to water. If the weather was cool, they would be fine, but when it’s warm or hot they need fluid water in addition to the pasture.

Weather has a large influence on the water needs of sheep

Sheep water needs fluctuate throughout the seasons and year. The same animal will have vastly different water needs depending upon environmental influences.

Sheep need water in the heat

Not so surprisingly, sheep need more water in the heat. Even if they are eating a lush diet, like pasture, that is naturally high in moisture.

Water needs for sheep can increase by 78% in extreme weather! Even more normal summer days will increase sheep water needs by 40%.

Without explaining in great detail, it is important to understand that water needs of all livestock drop approximately 50% between 72° and 36° F.  Therefore, the water needs of sheep, regardless of productive state, are much lower during winter.  


Another weather related factor is the dew on the grass in the morning. A heavy dew gives the sheep extra moisture with their morning grazing, a bonus not available with grass eaten later in the day.

Interestingly enough, we notice that when it’s windy out, the sheep need more water, even the sheep on pasture.

Other factors that influence sheep water needs

Other factors that influence whether or not sheep need water are:

  • breed of sheep
  • reproductive or growth stage of the animal
  • diet, dry feed vs moist feed

British breeds of sheep need more water

Breeds of sheep that are developed to work well in drought prone areas tend to need less water per head than sheep that are developed in areas with plentiful water.

British breed sheep need about 20 per cent more water than do Merino sheep in hot weather.

Water Requirements For Sheep And Cattle, dpi.nsw

You’ll see this difference highlighted in Merino versus British breeds of sheep. Merino sheep need less water than British breeds. This alone explains why all the huge western flocks are Merino based, I had always wondered!

Each stage of reproduction requires different amounts of water

As your sheep go through the different stages of the year and their lives they will need differing amounts of water according to the stage they are in.

The higher water needs of sheep are during lactation, late pregnancy and periods of fast growth, like for weaned lambs.

There is some variability within these stages, for instance a ewe with twins will be making more milk (hopefully!) than a ewe with a single. Additionally, early lactation will require more water than later lactation, like right before weaning.

Also, during breeding season, the rams at least and the ewes in heat for the day will be zooming around the pasture more than normal. More walking around and chasing each other means higher water needs.

Dry feed consumption requires more fluid water intake

Dry feed could be from hay or a water stressed pasture, either way the feed intake for the day is lower in moisture than it would be if those sheep were eating a nice stand of lush grass.

How Many Bales Of Hay For Sheep? shows you how to figure up the hay needs for your flock.

In these situations, the sheep will need to be given access to additional water to make up for the lack of water in their daily diet. All you are doing is replacing the water that was lost in order to dry and store the hay.

When you think about this, it makes sense. If your sheep are eating 4 pounds of hay each, they are getting just over half a pound of water in the hay, since hay is not 100% dry, it is more like 12-15% water.

This sheep would have needed to eat 12 pounds of grass to get 4 pounds of hay equivalent. If she was eating root crops, like turnips, she would need to eat 17 pounds to get a 4 pound hay equivalent.

So the sheep eating grass is automatically taking in over 8 pounds of water with the grass and 13 pounds of water with the turnips!

Since you are feeding hay, which is dry grass, you have to make up the difference of the water the sheep would normally get. She has to get that extra 8 or so pounds of water from a fluid water source, like a water trough.

Intake of other forages will reduce need for additional water

If the sheep are eating a moist source of forage, like root crops, and the weather is in the cooler range, they do not need additional water to be healthy. They have enough moisture in their diet already.

Many forages that are not specifically perennial grass pastures can be fed to sheep for extra grazing that would still have higher levels of moisture in the plant, just like grass. Easy examples here are turnips or mangles (livestock beets).

Water intake is a balancing act, the sheep need the right amount of water to go with the feed they eat, but too much water makes them have to process more volume to get the same results, this is taxing.

If you are not sure, give the sheep water

If you have any questions about whether or not your sheep need access to fluid water, give them a trough of water and let them decide.

This is what we do. Some days the sheep do not drink much, at all, other days they really guzzle the water. Since we keep the water available, they can choose.


Water Requirements For Sheep And Cattle, a PDF full of data from Australia, I used a quote on good green pasture and water requirements

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