What Do Sheep Eat In The Winter?

sheep eating a round bale of hay while it is on the unroller

Sheep have plenty of grass to eat in the growing season, after all, if you are mowing your lawn then the pastures are growing, too! But…what about when the grass stops growing, what do sheep eat in the winter?

In the winter, sheep eat stored forages, like hay or haylage. If there is extra pasture, the sheep can eat the grass that grew during the growing season as winter feed.

How Many Bales Of Hay Do Sheep Need? will show you how to calculate up the hay needs for your flock.

SheepWinter Feed
most ewesgood hay, grass if available
most lambshigh quality hay, possibly grain
lactating eweshigh quality hay, possibly grain
ramsgood hay, grass if available
Grass, if available, is a great winter feed option for all adult sheep at maintenance energy needs.

In the winter, sheep eat stored forages, usually hay

Most sheep would be fed hay in the winter.

For most sheep farmers, winter means feeding some sort of stored forages, like hay, haylage or silage. Hay, which is dried and baled grass or other forages, is the most commonly used winter sheep feed.

Hay is made of dried and baled grass or other forages

Hay can be made from nearly any grass or forage plant that has feeding value for the sheep. The specific plants used for hay vary with the area, but a few common hay plants are orchard grass, timothy, clover and alfalfa.

The advantage of feeding hay is that since it is dried, it can sit opened until the rest of the bale is needed and it is usually available in small square bales of 35-50 pounds each, which can be carried by hand.

How To Choose High Quality Hay is an article that I wrote to show you the specifics to look for when determining if the hay you want to buy will be worth your money.

Haylage is fermented (wet) hay

Haylage is fermented wrapped hay, sort of like sauerkraut, and is an excellent feed for sheep in the winter. This is what we feed our sheep, both the ewes that are outside on pasture and the growing to market size lambs in the barn.

The only downside of haylage is since it is wet, it is heavy and usually made in large square or round bales that require a tractor with a loader or bale spear to move.

This type of forage, while wonderful for the sheep, would be much more feed than a small sheep flock would be able to eat in a few days, since once opened the bale needs fed in about 3 days.

As long as the farmer has a tractor to move the bales and enough sheep to eat a bale in 3 days, haylage is a great feed for sheep.

Silage is chopped and fermented forage

Silage is a fermented forage that is cut into smaller pieces and packed in a bunk or silo, then allowed to ferment, then fed. Silage is more of a large farm option, since there is significant equipment required to use it.

The silage itself if very economically priced for the feed value it provides per acre, the catch is the equipment needed to get it harvested and to the eaters.

Silage is more of a cattle operation feed, especially popular for lactating dairy cattle. This is simply because there is not really any way to do silage on a smaller scale.

Here is our field of stockpiled grass for the sheep to eat in the winter. Stockpile is grass that is left alone during the grazing season, so it is available to the sheep when the pastures are no longer regrowing for the year.

Sheep can eat grass in winter

Not all sheep end up eating hay or other stored forages in the winter, some sheep farms still have enough grass left over in the grazing season to keep their flock on grass, year round!

This is how Greg Judy of Green Pastures Farm manages his sheep, they are kept on grass (and no hay) all year. The sheep are an additional enterprise to go with the cattle, his main business.

Our sheep have access to grass, as long as they can reach it through the snow, but they are also fed haylage daily, starting in November and lasting through green up in the spring, which is around April 1st.

Sheep that are gestating (common for winter) need less energy

Pregnant sheep can get all of their energy needs for the winter from good hay.

Gestating sheep, which is what the majority of the flock will be in the winter, can get along just fine on hay or haylage, even when they are outside.

Ewes (female sheep) that are gestating (pregnant) need less energy for the winter than lambs, which would be growing so they need more energy.

Lambs need high quality feeds in the winter

Lambs, since they have a developing digestive system and they are still growing, need a higher quality feed source for the winter than the mature sheep in the flock would need.

Lambs can grow well in the winter on hay, but it must be nice hay that is palatable and very digestible.

What is 2nd Cutting Hay? will show you how to pick out good, lamb appropriate hay.

In the summer, lambs can grow well on grass, since grass is what sheep are made to eat, but the winter is a different story.

Even if there is enough grass for the sheep to eat for the winter, it will be tough for the lambs to grow well enough on just that grass and still have their own lambs next spring.

Sheep that are lactating in winter need higher energy feeds

Ewes that are lactating (milking) need higher energy feeds than when they are gestating. While having ewes that are lactating in the winter is not a common practice, it is possible for breeds of sheep that are year round lambers.

Nursing ewes will need high energy feeds, especially in the winter, since they are taking in the calories for themselves as well as the calories to make milk for their lambs and do not have grass to eat like in the summer.

Lactating ewes will most likely be supplemented with grain, or other concentrates like pellets, to keep them in good shape and producing milk in a challenging season.

Sheep still need water in winter

Sheep still need to have water, even in the winter. True, sheep tend to drink less in the cold, but they still drink. Sheep can eat snow, but should be given access to water, as well, just in case they prefer it to the snow.

Sheep need a salt block in the winter

The final feed type item that sheep need to have for the winter is a salt block. Whether your sheep are inside or outside, having free choice access to a salt block is crucial.

Sheep will lick the salt block to get the salt they need, when they need it. It’s easy to have a salt block in each pen and a cheap way to lessen bloat, which it seems that the sheep can control, if it is minor, with access to salt.

Another kind of crazy thing about the salt block is the sheep will ignore it, then all of a sudden they all decide they desperately need it!

The point is you never know when they will decide to go on a salt binge, so have the salt (and water) ready.

Winter Management Tips For Sheep is an article from Michigan State University Extension which will give you more tips on caring for your flock this winter.

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