What our grass-fed sheep and goats eat depends upon the season. In the spring the new grass growth is eagerly anticipated after their winter’s diet of harvested grass and alfalfa hay. If the opportunity presents itself and eager sheep may test the gate latches and often manage to release a chain, open the gate and bellow to the group to come along down the road to a green pasture. It is hard to hold them back until the spring grass is ready.
The actual turnout time is dependent upon weather conditions. Spring flooded or muddy fields are not appropriate for grazing. In Wisconsin the turnout time may vary from late March to late May. Until then sheep, goats and their shepherds have to patiently wait for the grass to grow.
When the grass is ready to be grazed it is important to introduce the sheep to pasture carefully. It takes a few days for their rumen to adjust. Fresh grass has a high water content so roughage such as hay is provided to aid their transition. If they gouge on the sweet new grasses and will have digestion problems later in the day. Keeping the rumen digesting properly is very important especially during lactation.
There are few things more beautiful or fun to watch than ewes with lambs entering a fresh grass pasture for the first time in the season. There is much bleating and calling to each other and to their lambs to “keep up”, “don’t dawdle”, “get through that gate”, “where is my second lamb…”
Corn is really type of grass–very tall grass—but grass.
Grazing a corn field can be an option even for grass-fed sheep. If you notice in the pictures, this is very young stalks without tassels. Grazing before the tasseling means there is no corn kernels—no ears—no grain.
The protein level is higher in growing grasses compared to the mature grass when the grain draws the plants resources to form seeds for reproduction. So this differs from running sheep in corn fields late in the season after the corn ears have been mechanically harvested. This field was planted in corn developed for grazing. There are more stems than in corn grown for conventional use. When grazing stalks are eaten down it will grow back like grass. The ears are very late to develop if they form at all.
In the upper Midwest the growing season for native grasses is short. By late summer their diet changes due to maturing plants becoming more fibrous and frequent drought conditions. In September the sugars begin to drop into the roots of the grass so little nutrition is available for growing young animals. Annual forages, such as pumpkins and brassicas, are sourced or grown to provide the protein and energy required by growing lambs.
The ewes appear to be have fun eating pumpkins but they are also highly nutritious and prepare ewes for breeding. Ewes that are provided higher nutrition before breeding are more likely to conceive and successfully carry multiple lambs. Extra pumpkins are easy to find after Halloween and the ewes love this addition to their diet.
We also plant acres of turnips and other brassicas. Our lambs love turnips and they are a great food for growing lambs even after the first snow storms. Both ewes and lambs do a great job of harvesting turnips. They start with the greens. If managed so the growing tip is left on the bulb the greens will regrow for an additional harvest. Late in the season, after the first frost, the sugars increase in the bulb and the lambs dig them out of the ground for another harvest. One field of turnips usually provides 3 quality harvests for growing lambs.
Forage brassica crops include a wide variety of turnips, swede, rape and kale. Some of the brassicas are developed to provide heavy green growth with minimal bulbs. Others provide the standard purple topped bulb common at the grocery store.
Turnip greens are high in protein (up to 20%) and provide a good growing ration for lambs while the bulb is lower in protein (8-12%) but is higher in carbohydrates and provides the additional energy lambs crave when the nights turn cold in the fall and early winter.
This means that they like to eat with their heads up, often reaching as high as they can for leaves, twigs and wooded area’s understory.
They prefer woods to grass pasture but will also nibble on fresh, uncontaminated grass. They are observed to be much fussier in what they will eat when compared to sheep or cattle—and are talented at nibbling off the most nutrient-rich parts of plants such as flowers, young twigs and new buds even to the point of nibbling around thorns. Poison ivy is a delicacy and the young leaves of nettles, thistles and buck thorn succumb quickly to a herd of goats.
The goat’s digestive system does a very good job of turning browse into a nutritious feed source that is not able to be utilized efficiently by other livestock. Unlike native grasses, leaves and browse hold their nutritional value throughout the summer providing a consistent source of protein and carbohydrates.
In contrast, summer grass matures early in the season and the nutrients are shifted to the seed head leaving a fibrous grass stem with low nutritional value for livestock. During drought conditions native grasses convert nutrients to the seed head faster than normal to ensure survival when conditions improve resulting in even less optimal grazing days for sheep and cattle.
The goats preference for browse help them cope surprisingly well during droughts, and in arid or low fertility environments when other livestock species are more likely to struggle. Ninety percent of the world’s goat populations provide a source of protein under harsh conditions. Goats have adapted to virtually any climate and are viewed by many working in the poorest countries as the most sustainable livestock for ensuring global food security (Winrock International, 2011).
Note: Sheep, goats and cattle are called ruminants because of the function of their rumen. The rumen is the first of the 4 part stomach and is where forage collects immediately after being swallowed and where it is softened by bacteria and fermentation. It is later chewed more It is later chewed more thoroughly and referred to as their cud. In this way they are able to digest tough plant material such as cellulose (the main component of plant walls) that simple stomachs, like our own, are not capable of efficiently digesting.