Okay, in the first post we looked at the differences between meat and dairy animals, and in the second post we looked at why breed is important. In this post, I’m going to attempt to link all this together. Here goes!

milk sheep and non-milk sheep
Difference between 2 udders at peak, both beginning lactation at similar times. The milk sheep will milk for 200 or so days, the non-milk sheep 100 or so days.

We all need to eat of course, but we can’t eat just anything and expect to be in peak health. Along with that, a 5 year old, will have different nutritional needs to a 13 year old, to a 25 year old, and so on. Males and females will also have different dietary requirements to each other. It gets quite complicated, which is why there is a 123 billion dollar industry globally that focuses on nutrition. Nutrition matters big time no matter what species you are.

Feeding livestock isn’t that much different. Different breeds, and types of animals have different nutritional needs. A number of factors go into figuring out what an animal needs to be fed. These can include:

  • life stage
  • type
  • breed
  • genetic lineage
  • size
  • sex
  • breeding or not
  • age
  • amount of activity
  • type of management system (inside, outside, intensive, pet)
  • goals for animal (meat, milk, breeding stock, pet, show)
  • geographic location
  • availability of feed-stuffs
How much activity an animal does.
Is an animal a “house sheep” or climbing over mountains?

That’s a lot to consider! It’s a challenge to look at one aspect individually as well, because they are so intertwined. It’s something we look at here ALL the time. It can get very tiring, but it’s also extremely interesting. Barring illness, most mammals react the same way if they don’t get enough to eat. I’m also going to begin focusing on sheep now, as that’s where I have the most actual experience. Also, we are a sheep farm, so it kinda makes sense!


Just as an elite athlete (Doug Gilmour of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a great example!) requires more calories due to exerting more energy, an animal that’s exerting energy in some form does too. Exerting energy is often thought of as just physical activity, but doesn’t necessarily need to be. Milk, meat, and fibre all require extra energy. Milk is produced after a mammal gives birth. The amount of energy required to have offspring is enormous and requires an exceedingly large amount of extra nutrition to do it well. The fetus is taking so much energy, that even a seemingly healthy animal can be starving. Sheep are very bad for this due to their wool. Wool can often trick people into thinking a sheep is healthy and fat, even experienced shepherds can have this happen. Sheep are excellent at hiding health problems due to being prey animals. And yes, this has happened to us. Once an animal goes down, the chances of it getting up are very slim.

Once the offspring is born, milk production to feed said offspring is also enormous. If an animal isn’t getting enough nutrition while in milk, they will begin using their fat reserves just to survive. Volume and nutritional content of milk changes drastically, often to the detriment of the offspring. What goes in, must come out. If nothing or not enough is going in, then the out will come from somewhere, often the parent animal’s own resources such as fat or bone marrow. An animal bred for milk is giving much more energy away through her udder, either to her offspring, or to a farmer milking her. Even well fed dairy animals need a lot more nutrition, and often appear thin even when being fed well. If the animal doesn’t have enough feed, her milk production will go down, her offspring won’t grow well, and she will eventually die; possibly both will. In sheep this can happen very fast. Their short gestation periods (5 months) and small size means that growing lambs take up a lot of space inside the ewe. Eating just hay often doesn’t give her enough nutrition and she can go into ketosis or hypocalcemia. Both can be fatal.

Sheep in different climates
What weather and geographic conditions do the animals live in?

Geographic location is hugely important. Just as some plants have adapted to thrive in particular temperatures, soil types, and weather conditions, animals have to. You won’t find coconuts growing in Brandon, Manitoba, the climate and conditions, just aren’t right. Of course, there are always exceptions, but in I’m looking at general rule of thumb here.

Sheep in general are thought of as cold weather animals because most grow wool, but they are most plentiful in very hot countries such as Australia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Indonesia. These sheep can be very different than the ones in Europe. Take the Afrino, probably never heard of it, well me neither until I wrote this. The Afrino has been selectively bred to do well on the African veldt and it’s specific conditions – winter down to 7C and summers to 30C or above as well as variable rainfall. It’s a highly variable climate, plus predators. Think stereotypical African scene with giraffes, lions, and hyena – THAT is veldt  These sheep are left alone to range, searching for food, climbing, be able to produce enough milk on resources on the veld to have that lamb(s) grow well, and have a quality wool. Afrino’s have no access to grain, forage that is dispersed over a very large area, little water, and hot, wet, or cold dry conditions. Chances are they would do very poorly in the humid barn of southern Ontario over the winter. In reverse, a Suffolk sheep would probably do very poorly on the veldt. Where an animal originates also effects it’s optimal diet. An Icelandic sheep that originated in the tundra hills of Iceland would probably do very poorly on the veldt, BUT…if someone began crossing the two over many generations, a new breed that thrived in that environment would emerge.

Suffolk Sheep
American Suffolk
Suffolk Sheep
British Suffolk
Suffolk Sheep
Australian Suffolk


Of course, not all sheep of a particular breed are identical. Different genetic lines of sheep are, well, different. There are major differences country to country, and animal to animal. One example is the Suffolk. Originating in southern England, the English Suffolk, Australian Suffolk, and American Suffolk all look different despite being the same breed. Preferred characteristics vary from country to country and people breed accordingly. Just because they are the same breed, doesn’t mean that an American Suffolk from Texas would do well in the southern U.K. or in northeast Scotland.

What kind of management system are the animals raised in?
What kind of management system are the animals raised in?

Keeping animals outside, inside, or a combination of both is also going to have an effect of what it eats and how well it converts it’s feed. Feed conversion is a hot topic in agriculture. Essentially it means (from Wikipedia) the ratio or rate measuring of the efficiency with which the bodies of livestock convert animal feed into the desired output – milk, meat, fibre, etc. It generally has one goal – to feed as little as possible that’s as cheap as possible and have the animal produce as much as possible. In essence, spending as little labour and money to get a good end result. This is almost the end goal of every working farmer. Of course, only so many corners can be cut, and those corners depend on what is available in your area and what animal your feeding. When we began keeping sheep, we had Shetland sheep. Amazing little creatures that are 100 lbs soaking wet. Tiny, colourful, and probably one of the best beginner sheep around. They thrive on just about anything, need virtually no assistance for, once again, anything. While I don’t recommend this, they can be left in an open hillside and likely do just fine, at least a large number of them will. Now, that’s how they came to be. People just left them to their own devices on the Shetland Isles, the best survived. What they aren’t good at is producing fat meaty lambs fast, unless you begin feeding them a higher nutrition feed that what’s in the field.

rotational grazing sheep
Pasture matters a lot when grass-feeding sheep. Internal parasites can cripple sheep flocks internationally.

Oh, but the field matters too. A deep prairie soil is going to have far more lush forage than a rocky hillside slope. A rotationally grazed field (where the animals cycle through many pastures during a grazing season) will probably also provide much better nutrition than one where the animals graze over repeatedly, never letting the plants to regrow. The stage of plant growth make a difference too. At the beginning of the year the grass is much more lush, and nutrient rich. Once seed heads have formed, the plant has done it’s job for the year and has much less nutritional value. Different animals have definite preferences too. Cows can eat almost anything with their big tongues, teeth, and rumens. Sheep, being so much smaller, can’t or wont’ voluntarily eat thicker plant stems, or even some species of plants. What plants they eat will also depend on breed. Shetlands love to browse shrubs and trees, like goats. Milk sheep, meh. Not so much, but they can be taught by other sheep. Yes, that happens here. Very cool to watch. Health is also a huge consideration when having animals outside, There are parasites, diseases, poisonous plants, that are different for every species, but can cross species. Intestinal worms are common on sheep, and they can easily be deadly. Not so much in cattle. Goats and sheep share parasites, but generally don’t with horses or cattle.

In a confinement farm, the animal will have a very regimented diet that changes through each age and stage of life fed regularly. Usually confinement animals are fed a TMR, or total mixed ration. A TMR is specifically formulated by the feed mill, using recommendations from an animal nutritionist for that specific group of animals. It consists of minerals, hay, grains, and many other things. Not all animal will do well in this situation. Trying to imagine my little Shetlands in a  wholly confinement barn is a nightmare, but, the docile Dorset may do far better. Why would anyone consider doing confinement farming? Well, there can be advantages. One is lack of predation. Being inside means that coyotes, wild dogs, bears, ravens,etc. don’t get your lambs or ewes. Lambing time and conditions can be controlled and can happen year-round. Feed can be optimized. More sheep can be raised on a smaller acreage. Parasite issues are greatly reduced. Many things can be mechanized making it easier to manage larger numbers of sheep. Now, this isn’t the way we chose to farm. We have our reasons. But, it is out there and these are some of the reasons people do it. Even many lambs are raised inside to prevent health issues such as diarrhea from fresh lush grass.

Studies have also shown that young ruminants that are fed some grains around the time there rumen develops, tend to have better digestion. The theory, to my understanding, is, as the grains seem to stimulate the rumen more than on just milk promoting better digestion and a larger, heavier rumen. By the way, the rumen is where the magic happens for a 4 stomached animal such as a cow or sheep.

Visual difference between hay and straw.
Visual difference between hay and straw.

Oh, and just in case, hay is considered grass-fed. It’s dried grasses and legumes cut and stored for later. Straw, is the stem of grain crops and is usually used for bedding.

So after all that, what about grass-fed? Well, having animals, particularly sheep, especially dairy sheep, it’s pretty much impossible to do and maintain good flock health. There are so many uncertainties. What if the pasture or hay you’re feeding isn’t good enough? What if your pasture is flooded? What if the pasture parasite load is too high? What if there are just too many predators around? What if the hay that would work is too expensive? What if the available hay is not hay good enough? What if there’s no hay at all? What if , what if, what if… A way to mitigate the what if, is to rely on more than one source of food. Something akin to don’t put your eggs all in one basket.

Even the Ontario Dairy Farmer’s have a 25% allowance for feedstuffs other than grass and hay. If you’re interested in learning more about that, they have a great, updated PDF about what they allow as grass-fed that you can read and download.

Do we feed grain? Yes, during particular times to particular animals. Lambs get some around weaning time to promote healthy gut bacteria. This is fed in a creep feed so that the adults cant get it. The milk sheep get some for most of the year mainly on the milking stand. They really need it because they work so hard for so long. The little Shetlands and adult sheep that aren’t being milked only get some 6 weeks before and 4 weeks after lambing. They do just fine on hay alone, unless they have lambs.

So what’s the takeaway? To me, it’s don’t get too tangled up in dogma around an methodology or idea. The health and welfare of the land, animals, and ecosystem is more important than what we’d like to do. Use research to guide your decisions – there’s lots of it out there. Take anecdotal advice with a grain of salt. and finally – MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR LARGE ANIMAL VET!!! This is one of the most important things to do. Pay them well and in a timely fashion. It’s hard work.

Much of farming seems like preparing for the unexpected because so much of is is completely out of the farmer’s, heck, humanity’s control, even though we like to think so.

Do you have any thoughts on grass-fed? Farming? Milking? and my favourite, sheep? Let me know in the comments below.





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