The best ways of Feeding Sheeps
Managing to feed correctly throughout the year is the foundation for keeping a healthy, productive flock. Poor nutrition is one of the most common and important reasons why some flocks contain too many thin sheep, leading to increased losses and compromised production. Remember that a full fleece may conceal the fact that sheep are much thinner than anticipated, so regular ‘hands on’ condition scoring is crucial to avoid nasty surprises.
Although a number of important chronic diseases cause abnormal thinness, the first and most important factor to consider if this is a problem is, are the animals being given enough food for their stage of production? For adult sheep, body condition does not remain the same throughout the year – during periods of plenty or when production demands are low, sheep gain body condition and can then utilize stored fat during periods when demands are high. This produces a well-recognized cycle of what should be controlled weight gain and weight loss.
Target condition scores are as follows:
tupping time – lowland ewes 3–3.5, hill ewes 2–2.5
early pregnancy – maintain the condition
mid-pregnancy – the gradual loss of up to half a condition score is acceptable, providing not too lean at tupping
lambing time – lowland ewes 3, hill ewes 2–2.5
lactation – loss of up to one condition score
after weaning – recovery of body condition.
It is possible to tell by looking at the colored sheep on the left is very thin. The colored sheep on the right may be too thin but needs handling in order to be sure. It is impossible to tell the body condition of the sheep in the center because of the heavy fleece it is carrying.
Sheep are grazers, so the most important part of the diet is forage – grass through most of the year, and hay, haylage or silage during the winter months. Forage can be supplemented with various types of concentrate when demands are higher than what the forage can supply (during cold winters and most often in late pregnancy), but grass of the correct length and well-made hay, haylage or silage is usually the cheapest and best food for any sheep through much of the year. Rams may need extra concentrates in the weeks prior to tupping time.
Assessing the Adequacy of the sheep’s Feed
This article cannot go into great detail on feeding sheep, but what follows highlights the most important aspects. The three most important factors to consider when assessing the adequacy of the food supply are as follows:
Does the available food contain the necessary nutrients, particularly energy, for the stage of the production cycle?
Is there a sufficient quantity of nutritious food for the number of animals needing it?
Can all the animals get their fair share of the food? When sheep are relying on grazed grass the most important factor to consider is whether it is of the correct length. Sheep do best when the grass is 2–6cm long; above this length, the grass becomes too mature and is wasted. Restricting the sheep to an appropriate area to maintain this length may be necessary, but adjustments will need to be made particularly during periods of hot, dry weather and cold winter weather when grass growth slows or even stops.
There is a common misconception that sheep at grass does not need a water supply. Animals grazing wet or lush grass may drink little extra water, but it should always be available. Ewes suckling lambs drink considerable amounts of water.
Fields without streams running through them should have accessible water troughs installed. These should be checked for leaks and cleaned out regularly. This one is partly filled with large stones so lambs can get out if they jump into it whilst playing.
Hill sheep grazing extensively keep the areas of palatable grass short while other areas covered with plants such as bracken are not generally grazed at all.
This field has fairly recently been spread with manure. Grazing a field like this can lead to disease problems if the manure is fresh. A high infection rate with toxoplasmosis has been found in flocks where the manure was contaminated with cat feces. It is particularly dangerous to graze animals on fields spread with chicken manure, which can harbor the bacteria that cause botulism.
A quad bike and ‘snacker’ allows sheep to be easily fed cobs on the ground. If the area has been under grazed, grazing with cattle, for which the optimum grazing length is longer, will improve the sward for sheep. Alternatively, topping the overgrown area will encourage new grass growth. When the grass supply is insufficient, supplementation will be necessary by providing extra forage, and concentrates or feed buckets if necessary in the field, or for extensively kept sheep, providing extra food at accessible points, or by housing and feeding indoors. (image snacker)
Feeding Housed Sheep
Housed sheep are entirely dependent on the shepherd for their food and water supply. Most commonly it is ewes that are housed for the last six to eight weeks of pregnancy. For early lambing flocks housing may extend into a considerable part of lactation, too – indeed, some lambs produced for the Easter market never go out. Also commonly housed are lambs that have not reached meat weight or finish by late autumn, so they may be fattened.
The same feeding considerations apply quality, quantity, and accessibility. ewes according to lambing date, scanning results and, most importantly, body condition enables food to be correctly allocated. Group sizes should not be too big – no more than forty or fifty to a pen, and they should all be able to access the forage and concentrates. If they cannot, the shy feeders and weaker animals will not receive an adequate amount and can quickly lose weight, becoming susceptible to pregnancy toxemia.
Preferably, good forage should be available ad lib, with concentrates being floor fed if possible: this occupies the sheep for longer than trough feeding, ensures each gets its share, and virtually no food is wasted. Floor feeding is not appropriate for giving a home mix, however, so this will either have to be fed in troughs or in front of a barrier outside the pen. It is usual to begin feeding concentrates six to eight weeks before lambing is expected to start. These should be introduced into the diet carefully and the amount increased slowly so as not to upset rumen function.
While it is best to have an analysis of fodder quality, quite a lot of information can be gained by smelling it and looking at it, to see the color and amount of leaf that is present. These indicate the stage at which the grass was cut and whether it was damaged by being out in wet weather before being harvested. The moisture content of silage is important, as sheep cannot eat sufficient very wet silage to provide their energy requirements.