Are you feeding your sheep hay or grass? For most sheep farmers, one of these forages is the obvious choice, with most folks going with grass, for at least part of the year.
If you are fortunate enough to have both options available, which one should you pick?
Sheep can and do eat both hay and grass. Whether grass or hay is fed is based on which one of the two is more economical at the time. The choice of forage for the flock can, and usually does, change through out the year based on the needs of the flock, the farm and the growing season.
Both hay and grass are good for sheep
Both hay and grass are good for sheep and both can be used to fulfill a sheep’s nutritional needs, as long as the grass and/or hay are high quality.
Sheep can live on only grass or they can live on hay or, as most would, they can eat a combination of both depending upon the growing season.
The catch here is that one of these, either the hay or the grass, usually has a significant economic advantage over the other for the farmer.
In case you didn’t know, hay is dried grass (or other sheep edible plants) that is stored for later use. A common use for hay is to feed during the winter when the grass is not growing.
Since the sheep can eat both grass and hay and do just fine, which one makes the most sense for your farm?
Do Sheep Eat Hay? goes over the basics of hay for sheep.
What forage resources are available to feed your flock?
What resources do you have available to feed the sheep? Usually, this is an economics question and most sheep farmers feed the forage that makes the most money sense for their situation.
For instance, a farm with plenty of acreage in pasture would probably use grass for any part of the year that it was practical. That would be the easiest way to get plenty of forage to the sheep in this situation.
What about a person with limited land? For those folks, hay is going to play a much bigger role in the everyday diet of their flock.
They could still get some grass to the sheep by turning the sheep out to graze around the house or the building, but mainly the sheep would be eating hay year round.
There is no right or wrong choice here, it’s more about fitting the sheep to your resources, which includes your time and money.
Do sheep like hay or grass better?
We find that sheep tend to like grass better, but that really depends upon the quality of the grass compared to the quality of the hay and if the hay has something in it that the sheep have been lacking.
For instance, if you have a nice first cutting hay and toss a flake or two out to sheep in good grass, they may come over and look at it but they’ll go back to the grass. In this case, the grass is better.
But, take that same flake of hay and toss it into the sheep in the winter, when there is no fresh grass available, they will gobble it up.
It’s the same hay and the same sheep as before when they ignored the hay, this time it’s a different situation and you would get a different result.
The opposite situation may also be true, if your grass is so-so at best and you toss the ewes a flake of really nice alfalfa or another top notch hay, they will be right over and the hay will be gone in no time.
Hay For Sheep: Which hay is the best choice for your flock? shows you things you need to check to make sure the hay you buy is will work for your sheep.
Start with the grass for the flock
For most flocks, it makes the most sense to start the sheep off with the grass. This is especially true if the sheep are going to be put into an area that would be mowed but not harvested, like a lawn.
If the grass could also be harvested, the options of selling the hay or using the forage as hay for your sheep should be penciled out to see what makes the most sense for your farm.
Spoiler alert: chances are really high that grazing the area with your sheep makes the most sense economically, especially when you factor in costs of equipment. The costs of grazing are hard to beat.
What if you have a very limited amount of grass?
If you are very limited on grass, you can still consider it as part of the diet of your flock. The more limited you are, the sooner you’ll have to start supplementing with hay.
Even if you only have your yard, no problem, put the sheep in there anyway rather than mowing.
Of course, you’ll need to fence them off of things you don’t want them to eat but we find that the sheep do a fairly good job of lawn mowing and seem to like the shorter, lawn type grass.
Backyard Sheep is one of my articles that I put together specifically for folks considering using their smaller areas, specifically yards, as grazing for sheep.
One of the big problems with severely limited grass is parasites due to overgrazing. You’ll have to keep an eye on your sheep and work with your vet to figure out a parasite plan suited to your situation.
What if your flock doesn’t have any access to grass?
If your flock has no access to grass, at all, you can still provide for their needs with hay.
This will be a potentially more challenging situation, ration wise, since the sheep only get what you bring.
Their hay must be high quality and fulfill all of their nutritional needs, which can be tough to achieve. Consider working with a nutritionist if you have concerns with this ration.
The reason I say this is because sheep on pasture have choices of what plants to eat, if they need burdock (a favorite that is eaten first in our pastures) they eat it. Sheep on hay do not have those options.
Multiple farms have sheep completely inside, which was unusual not all that long ago, or mostly inside with very limited pasture access and they are doing well, so it is doable.
Supplement with hay if needed
Many folks that raise sheep switch around between feeding both grass and hay, depending upon the field conditions and the grazing area available.
For instance, when we are going into winter, the sheep will eventually need to be fed mostly hay, even though they are outside, since the grass is no longer growing.
The first few weeks of feeding hay, the sheep are just sort of interested in the bale, they would rather eat grass then top off their daily intake with hay when they need to.
We have the hay available for the flock so that when they need it, they can choose to go over and eat. Sometimes it is surprising how little hay is eaten, but it is important to us that they have the choice.
Feeding hay in a low grass growth year
Another time you may find yourself considering hay is in a low production year.
If your grazing area is not growing like normal, get some hay out there to supplement the flock or bring the flock in and let the grass recover.
Another option to supplement poor pasture growth would be something like pelleted feeds, but since they are usually more expensive than hay, most folks would look to getting some extra hay, instead.
Do your sheep need higher quality forage than your pasture provides?
Are you concerned with low quality grass and think your sheep need more nutrition than they are getting? If so, put some high quality hay out there and see if they are interested.
You’ll know pretty quickly how the ewes feel about the grass compared to the hay!
This situation would be more likely if you have sheep with high energy needs at times when the forage production of your grazing area is lacking, like fall born lambs.
A few flakes of nicer hay to go with the remaining grass could be just the thing to keep those lambs growing well.
Your other option in this case would be creep feeding, my article Do Lambs Need Creep Feed will give you the scoop so you can see if it would make a difference to your flock.
If you are interested in an overview of your sheep feeding options, consider reading Sheep 101: What’s for dinner? which goes over pasture, stored feeds and supplemental feeds for sheep.