Raising Sheep: What They’ll Eat & What They Won’t


When I was deciding on what animals to get for my off grid homestead, my biggest concern was if my property had enough food to feed them so that I wouldn’t go bankrupt purchasing feed.  Turns out, sheep are perfect animals for most homesteads because of their ability to graze.

Sheep can eat only grass, but do best when there is a variety of herbaceous plants to choose from.  A lawn composed of only one type of grass such as bermuda grass would not provide a varied diet, whereas a more natural lawn in which wild grasses, forbes and herbs grow together, sheep can thrive.

Sheep are considered one of the hardiest animals that you can have on a homestead.  The short haired sheep do pretty well in Hawai’i and other tropical climates whereas the long haired sheep thrive better in colder climates.

They require very little maintenance and management compared to many other typical farm animals, such as horses or cows. That’s why I chose them for my place.  Let’s learn a bit more about what they do and what they don’t won’t want to eat.

Can Sheep Live on Grass Alone?

The natural diet of sheep includes grass and they can live on grass alone. Technically speaking, sheep are domesticated, herbivorous ruminants – meaning that they are grazing animals that consume only plants, and grass makes up a large part of their diet.

While sheep consume grass, it actually isn’t their favorite food – a plant called forbs is the preferred food of sheep. A typical diet of sheep includes various kinds of low-lying grasses, plants and foliage that provide a variety of nutrients, more than grass alone.

What Type of Grass is Best for Sheep

Sheep are grazing animals, so it is important to ensure there is a variety of natural grass mixed with clover and forbs (a leafy plant without a woody stalk) in their designated grazing area. The space for grazing should be regularly shifted to allow for adequate food.

Alfalfa is one of the most nutritious plants for sheep (although it’s technically considered a legume, not a grass). If alfalfa does not naturally grow in your region, consider planting it. 

Rhodes Grass is also a good grass for the diet of sheep. It is a tropical grass that is drought-resistant and grows well in areas with little rainfall.

African Foxtail Grass, also known as Buffel Grass is good forage grass for grazing animals, including sheep throughout Africa and Southern Asia. This grass is known for withstanding little rain and can grow at high altitudes.

It is important to feed sheep grasses and plants from the climate for which they are adapted. Sheep from cool climates (such as found in most of North America and Europe) should eat plants native to that area. For sheep adapted to tropical climates, provide grazing options or grasses natural the region.

Plants that are Toxic to Sheep

Just as important as knowing what to feed sheep, is knowing what plants to avoid giving your flock. There are some grasses and plants that are toxic to sheep and could make them very sick. Unwanted effects of eating such plants could lead to vomiting, lethargy, weakness, or as serious as causing paralysis or death.

It is important to be familiar with the types of plants that are toxic to sheep, especially if you intend to open-graze your flock. If your sheep graze within an enclosed pasture, be sure to identify all types of plants, especially weeds, that grow within the designated grazing area.

Some plants that are toxic to sheep or plants that sheep will completely avoid include:

  • Nightshade vegetables (including tomatoes and eggplant)
  • Ferns, such as Bracken Fern, Warabi Fern
  • Azaleas 
  • Foxglove
  • Flax
  • Locoweed (also known as Milk Vetch)
  • Guinea Grass
  • Mimosa Pudica

This is not an exhaustive list, make sure to be familiar with the types of plants toxic to sheep in your specific area.

Sheep Breeds That Feed themselves

Sheep are naturally a grazing animal, therefore all sheep breeds feed themselves if allowed access to grass. Sheep are generally considered low-maintenance livestock, especially when compared to cows. 

Your reasons for raising sheep determine which breed is best for you. If you want to raise sheep for meat, wool or milk, you should select a breed based on those factors. Also, consider your climate and what sheep are natural to the area, as they will certainly thrive more in their natural environment.

For Hawai’i, Dorper and Katahdin are great breeds

Meat

Lamb is the name for meat from a young sheep, while Mutton is the term for meat from an adult sheep. If you plant to raise sheep for meat, the easiest breeds of sheep to start with include:

  • Tunis Barbari
  • Katahdin
  • Dorper

Wool

Of course, sheep are known for their wool. There are long-wooled and short-wooled sheep (even sheep with hair, instead of wool!). If you are raising sheep for their wool, the easiest breads include:

  • Polypay
  • Cheviot
  • Merino
  • Dorset
  • Texel

Please not, wool sheep do not do well in warmer climates however, so a short haired sheep would be better for these environments.

Milk

If you’re feeling hesitant about sheep for milk purposes, consider that sheep milk is incredibly creamy and renowned for making delicious cheese! The easiest breeds of sheep for milk are:

  • Lacaune
  • East Friesian

How long can Sheep go Without Food

Sheep should be provided food and water daily. However, some breeds of sheep have been observed to go as many as 10 days without even water!

If a sheep is healthy and has a good percentage of fat on their body, they could fast for a few weeks without serious harm. This, however, is not advisable and it is recommended to always provide sheep access to adequate food and water.

How Much Room Do Sheep Need?

How much room a sheep needs depends on your climate and if the sheep are primarily grazing or feed-fed. Further, the amount of rain your area receives plays a large part in determining the amount of space sheep will require.

The best estimation to follow would be approximately 16 square feet per sheep. Keep in mind if your flock has more than one ram, provide extra space (as much as 30 or more square feet per ram).

For grazing purposes, plan to provide an average of one acre of land for every 10 sheep. Remember to rotate and shift grazing space regularly to allow for new growth and a variety of plants and grasses.

If you are interested in starting your own flock of sheep, remember that sheep are generally one of the easiest livestock to start on your homestead or hobby farm. These hearty animals require much less maintenance than other types of farm animals and prefer to graze. Provide your sheep with a variety of natural grass and their favorite – forb – to ensure they have a proper diet.

Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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