When my man and I first brought sheep home, neither of us had personally owned one before. Because our knowledge base was so small, I was eager to learn all about them! So far, the biggest surprise has been their eating habits! What do sheep eat? Here’s what I discovered.
It Isn’t What You’d Expect
I quickly learned that sheep don’t particularly care for grass or even clover. It was photos like this (see below) that led me to assume sheep primarily sustained themselves on these two greens, much like a horse or cow.
I soon learned this wasn’t true! While sheep will consume some grass, they actually prefer and do best on forbs (non-grass plants).
After a walk through our pasture, I’ve accumulated a list of herbaceous plants our sheep consume with great relish…while the green grass grows knee-high!
This plant can be found in almost every pasture here in the northwest. Turn your sheep loose to graze and it will quickly disappear!
Sheep won’t eat the tough stems of mature chicory plants but they will nibble off greens, tips and blossoms, leaving a bare stalk behind.
Both leaves and flowers of this creeping plant will feed your woolly mammals. Once again, they won’t eat tough, fibrous stems, but everything else is an option!
I was surprised to discover that sheep love both dandelion greens and flowers. In fact, they often consume these plants first!
Like goats, sheep will eat tree leaves and tips. Thus far, we’ve observed them consuming willow, peach and plum. They aren’t afraid to rear up on hind legs to increase their reach, so keep them out of the orchard!
Perennial Sow Thistle
While both the Bull and Canadian thistle readily grow in a many a pasture, sheep won’t do more than nibble at tender tops.
However, the leaves, flowers and stalks of the perennial sow thistle are consumed by these animals with great relish! In fact, this plant seemed to be one of our sheep’s favorites! They quickly decimated the small patch in their pasture, along with the prickly wild lettuce (click link for identification).
The List Goes On
In most cases, if a herbaceous plant is young, tender and green, sheep will eat it without a second thought! A sheep’s diet is similar to that of a goat, though perhaps less ‘scrubby’ in general.
There are a few plants your sheep may not eat. Here’s what we’ve discovered so far!
Plants Your Sheep May Not Eat
- The first (ironically) is lambs quarters, also known as goosefoot. Our sheep’s pasture has more than a few untouched ramblers going to seed!
- If young and tender, sheep will consume redroot pigweed. However, it isn’t their first preference and the plant will often be left to mature.
- A virtually untouched weed in our pasture is the yellow flowered mullein stalk.
- As mentioned above, sheep won’t brave the prickles of most thistle varieties. You’ll want to remove these from the pasture yourself.
What Do Sheep Eat?
In our experience, sheep prefer herbaceous plants and even trees or shrubs to perfectly manicured pastures. So if you’re planning to get sheep, make sure their grazing land offers a variety of plants and isn’t just plain old grass!