Welcome to the first installment of the Shepherding Series. This series of post and videos is intended to give first time shepherds or those thinking about becoming shepherds an overview on how to care for sheep.
To watch the accompanying video, please click here
When I moved to the farm in 2014 I knew then I wanted sheep. There is something about them I simply enjoy beyond their wool. I find sheep to be personable, funny, kind, generous, intelligent animals that give back what you put into a relationship with them. Living with these creatures here at Serenity has been a joy.
With the exception of Andromeda and Daisy along with their offspring, all the sheep that have passed through the sanctuary or are permanent residents came from less than ideal situations which is how I got into rescuing sheep in the first place. Too often I see people with good intentions but lack of knowledge fail at shepherding. This repeated experience is what led me to creating this series.
Sheep need pasture and clean water. The clean water part is typically easy to come by. Mine like troughs, buckets, and very shallow gently flowing brooks. Pasture and pasture management is often another story.
Each sheep eats about three percent of their body weight each day. The average weight in my flock is one hundred fifty pounds (150 #s). The minimum amount of pasture or hay my flock consumes daily is about 4.4 pounds per animal. In a flock of twelve that equates to about fifty pounds of forage or hay daily. Their food naturally is a combination of forbs, legumes, browse, and grass. They prefer to eat in that order. Forbs are their favorite food with grass being their least favorite.
Forbs are non woody, broad leafed, herbaceous plants like plantain, lyre leaf sage, dandelions, daisies, wild turnips, and sweet violet. Stop and take a look at that list. Every one of those plants that sheep prefer over grass are also used as medicinal herbs and foraged food by humans. Those plants are high in dense nutrients. The word “forbs” actually means “pasture” or “fodder” in ancient Greek. Forbs are the natural food for sheep. They need wild pasture, not tamed yards and fancy hays that miss the mark on dense nutrients.
In most homesteading situations sheep are on pasture. If you have sheep on pasture you will need to manage it well. We stock one thousand pounds of animals per 1.25 acre on our place. We have exceptionally good pastures due to a shallow water table, regular flooding, and a mild winter. However, in other parts of the country people need five acres to keep the same number of animal units fed. (An animal unit is one thousand pounds.) In other words, we keep six sheep per acre. You many need five acres to feed six sheep. To find out your area’s stocking rate, visit or call your local Agricultural Extension agent. They’re generally nice people.
While we are on the subject of pastures, I also want to hit on pasture rotational grazing. For smaller places, you may be able to stock higher numbers through rotational grazing. It is not something we need to do intensely here at Serenity Cove. However, other farms in our area who focus on livestock use intensive rotational grazing very successfully. Again, your Ag Extension agent is a wonderful resource on this management practice for your area.
Just as an aside: Sheep do not like tall grass where predators may lurk. We regularly mow our fields. This deters predators and allows our heavy wooled sheep easy access to new growth. It’s still high enough to be over our ankles, but once it reaches mid calf to knee level our sheep prefer to move on.
Some homesteads, or even breeding farms are not able to graze animals on pasture for various reasons. Some places simply do not support grazing animals due to climate, some places lack the land, and others have such high predation that confinement is the only loss prevention available. I want to make it clear – I believe that pasture feeding is the preferable because it is the most natural and least expensive for most, but there are times when confinement raising with adequate exercise room and hay feed are the best option for that operation. Keeping an indoor cat so they are not hurt is not cruel. Keeping a barn cat and allowing them to roam a safe farm is not cruel. They are different. The same principle applies to sheep. If you find yourself in this situation, you are a good shepherd. Don’t’ let anyone tell you differently.
We feed hay from our valley to our animals. This means our animals eat the same diet consistently all year long. If you can, this is ideal. If you are not so blessed, look for general “hay” and not the expensive grass racehorse hay. Sheep prefer forbs and high nutrient foods. We bought sweet smelling grass hay one year – our crew lost condition and constantly begged for more food. It became very expensive chicken coop bedding and we found some hay from a neighboring farm that was high in forbs. Our flock put their weight back on and were satisfied with less.
Procure hay that has not been treated with herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides. Herbicides and pesticides have been linked to birth defects and immune issues in multiple species. Fungicides hold a special danger to sheep – COPPER! Copper is poisonous to sheep. Copper is also a major ingredient in many fungicides. If that ends up in the hay, you will end up with dead animals. It’s not a matter of if poisoning will occur, but when your sheep will succumb to the poisoning.
Sheep need mineral just like all other living creatures. I use the red sheep mineral from TSC since most people in my area keep cattle and goats. Both cattle and goat minerals contain copper and are thus poisonous to sheep. Since I raise an “exotic” for my area my local farmer’s Co-op does not carry sheep minerals. That leaves TSC in our area for sheep supplies. Overall, I am pleased with their product. In addition to the regular sheep minerals, I also provide white salt blocks both in the barn and the pasture. They prefer the loose red minerals, but on a hot day they will use the large white salt blocks.
GRAIN and FEED
Have you noticed what I haven’t mentioned so far? Grains and processed “Feed”. Sheep need pasture/hay, water, and minerals. That’s it. Grain and feeds are candy for sheep. And just like candy, they make sheep fat. A little sweet feed occasionally for a treat is fine. As a food stuff, you are opening the door to bloat, ketosis if you breed, bad teeth, and prolapse issues from fatness. Eighty percent of the health issues I have seen in rescue sheep stem directly from feeding grains and manufactured feeds instead of a complete hay that includes forbs. My ewes use to produce 70 to 90 pound lambs at weaning with zero grain. It is an unnecessary cost to your operation and too easily leads to health issues that cost even more money in the long run.
That is the basics of what sheep need as far as food in order to be healthy. Each month over the life of this series I’ll be covering more topics such as housing, worming and parasites, common illnesses and treatment, bottle lambs, and why NOT to keep sheep along with picking your first sheep.
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and found it informative.
Until next time,
Craft No Harm,
Moriah and the Flock