Sheep should eat hay and will happily do so too because they find it highly palatable. Hay makes up a very important part of their diet to get the protein and energy they need.
However, sheep stage of development and the type of hay are very important aspects to consider, as is knowing how to select the best hay, and how much hay to feed sheep because overconsumption that results in bloat can be deadly.
Is Hay Good for Sheep?
Hay is very good for sheep and acts as an excellent source of protein. However, the hay you feed your sheep needs to match their nutritional needs according to their age of development.
Generally, a mature sheep just needs to maintain their body weight and so just has basic hay needs. Your typical, run-of-the-mill hay will be good enough.
A ewe that starts milking needs higher quality hay to keep it in optimal health and to maximize its milk production quality and ability. Lambs also need high-quality hay since they are growing. Replacement stock, like ewe lambs, all require higher quality hay too as you want them to be in optimal health for breeding.
Can Sheep Live on Hay Alone?
Sheep can eat and live on hay alone, though it probably wouldn’t be the best idea. The goal is for sheep to thrive instead of just survive, which could be challenging to do if hay was 100% of a sheep’s diet.
Hay alone is unlikely to contain all the nutrients sheep need for optimal development, which is why corn, barley, and other grains, as well as supplements, should be added to a sheep’s diet.
Can Sheep Bloat on Hay?
Sheep can bloat on hay if they eat too much, especially if there is a sudden change to the hay that they consume that is heavy with alfalfa and/or clover.
Bloat, which is an excess of gases in the rumen of sheep, can be deadly and requires emergency medical attention as soon as it is discovered.
Will Moldy Hay Hurt Sheep?
Ideally, sheep should not be fed moldy hay. However, if the mold is just on the top layer of the bale then it can be removed and it poses no danger to sheep. If the mold is also on the inside, the hay should not be given to sheep.
The problem with moldy hay is that it may contain mold that produces mycotoxins that are toxic to sheep. For most farmers, it’s better to be safer than sorry if in any doubt.
Can Sheep Eat Old Hay?
Sheep can safely eat old hay, but the problem is that they might not want to.
Old hay isn’t as palatable as fresh hay, so if your sheep are only used to fine, leafy, fresh hay they might become fussy and avoid it. Having said that, if it’s the only food that is available to the sheep, they might soon change their minds!
How Much Hay Should Sheep Eat a Day
How much hay sheep should eat a day depends on several factors, including the type of hay, breed of sheep, and other sources of food ( like grain). One bale of hay isn’t necessarily the same as the next either, even if they’re the same type. However, the most important factor is the stage of development.
The best source to refer to is the National Research Council’s nutrient requirement and feed composition tables.
- Maintenance: 1.5-2% of body weight (dry matter intake). Pasture or 2 ½ to 4 lbs. of grass hay
- Flushing (2 weeks before and 2 to 4 weeks into breeding season): Free access to pasture or 2 ½ to 4 lbs. of grass hay
- Early to mid-gestation (1st 15 weeks): Free access to pasture or 2 ½ to 4 lbs. of grass hay
- Late gestation (last six weeks): 4 to 5 lbs. of a grass or mixed hay
- Early lactation (first 6 to 8 weeks): 4 to 7 lbs. of hay
Can Sheep Eat Hay Cubes and Hay Pellets?
Sheep should not be fed hay cubes because the cubes require more chewing and are too large and hard for sheep to consume. Sheep’s teeth are not well suited to consuming cubes and pellets.
Sheep can eat hay pellets, though this not should be their only source of food. Sheep require hay bales and grains. Extra supplementation can also be a good idea too.
Protein Content of Hay
Not all hay is made equal. The protein content of each type of hay can vary significantly, even according to when it is harvested.
Alfalfa hay is the classic and a very popular choice to meet the nutritional requirements of high-energy sheep.
- Alfalfa hay, pre bloom: 21.1%
- Alfalfa hay, early bloom: 18.9%
- Lucerne hay: 18%
- Alfalfa hay, full bloom: 16.3%
- Red clover: 14-15%
- Orchard grass: 12-15%
- Timothy, late boot: 11.3%
- Oaten hay: 8.5%
- Timothy, late bloom: 5.4%
How to Choose the Best Hay for Your Sheep
In order to choose the best hay for sheep, you want to open a few bales and closely inspect them.
You should look at texture, maturity, color and leafiness. There should be no weeds, mold, dust or discoloration either. Any foreign material, such as bailing twines, wire, stick or rocks in the bales should also be avoided.
As a general rule, look for hay that contains more leaves than stems, smells and looks good, has no mold, and no seed heads.