Feeding Systems for Sheep

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 430/50
Publication Date: 02/03
Order#: 03-013
Last Reviewed: February 10, 2010
History: Original factsheet
Written by: Christoph Wand - Beef Cattle, Sheep and Goat Nutritionist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Rules of Thumb
  3. Planning a System
  4. Choosing a Feeding/Mixing System
  5. Diet Supplementation for Ewes Grazing Pasture
  6. Conclusion
  7. Table 1
  8. Table 2
  9. Table 3


Choosing a feeding system requires several considerations: labour efficiency, animal diets and such other animal factors as bunk space, number of head to be fed, as well as mechanical assets and needs.

Rules of Thumb

  • Forage feeding will be a bottleneck. It forms the bulk of the diet by volume, weight and feeding time. Efficient delivery of the forage component should be a primary goal.
  • One person should be able to feed forage in a system with no additional help.
  • Walk-though or drive-through feeders are the most time and labour efficient.
  • Feeding time (forage only) should be no more than 8 sec. per ewe. This is the time from storage to delivery completion. This means it takes 800 sec. or 13 min., 20 sec. to feed 100 ewes.
  • Deliver concentrates even more quickly than forages. Target for 1 sec./ewe or less of actual feeding time, and allow an extra few seconds per animal staging time (e.g. the time to fill carts or pails used in feeding).
  • Dry ewes (maintenance) are animals that require proportionately very little time (feeding and management).
  • Employ safe feeding practices. Avoid any feeding system that requires the animals be underfoot or in contact with machinery during forage or concentrate delivery. Such systems increase risk to shepherd and sheep, as well as reduced efficiency. See Table 1, Space Allowances and Bunk Space Requirements for Sheep, for proper space allowances per sheep to ensure intake and safety.

Planning a System

Simulate one year's feeding needs. Include all rations that might be fed. See Table 2, Sheep Rations Commonly Fed Over a Production Year and Their Commodity Components for a sample plan. Your first decision is what format to use feed forage. Will it be bales or bulk? Silage or dry hay? Assuming bales, are they big or small, round or square? This affects feeder choices and designs, as well as the method of delivery. Forage is assumed to be the cornerstone of the diet, except for lamb rations.

Some common ration and concentrate permutations are given in Table 3, Commodity Options by Concentrate Feeding System. Several variations of feedstuffs are named for each ration to allow you to determine feed and equipment needs. This factsheet assumes an accelerated breeding and lambing system using prolific ewes. The production system allows for confinement or outdoor housing of the flock.

  • Molasses is recommended in lamb rations to promote intake. Wet molasses is preferred, but dry molasses will suffice.
  • Supplemental minerals are required in each ration. You can make it available either as free-choice, or in the supplement pellet or in the ration as a premix. If used as a premix, it will separate with the fines, and is not suitable for any feeding system other than bunks/mangers, unless a binding agent is used (e.g. molasses).
  • The range of crude protein (CP) and total digestible nutrients (TDN) values for the pasture supplementation scheme is a reflection of pasture variability. Understand the forage quality of each pasture being consumed by the sheep.
  • Corn vs. Small Grains: In many cases cost determines which grain to use. In general, corn is lower in protein and higher in energy (9% CP and 90% TDN) than barley (12% CP and 82% TDN) and oats (11% CP and 73% TDN). The combination of grain economics and pasture quality affects which grains to use for pasture supplementation, and may cause any one ingredient to be removed from the mixture.
  • Quantities of ration ingredients can only be determined with information on the nutrient content of the forage component of the ration.

Table 3 is a listing of the various options available to achieve the recommended crude protein and energy content of supplements for various classes of lambs and sheep. Formulate an appropriate ration to ensure its suitability for a given class of animals.

Choosing a Feeding/Mixing System

At a certain farm size, many producers consider mixing their own feed. Consider the following points in deciding whether mixing feed on-farm is economical.

  1. Calculate the cost of a farm-made diet for the permutations planned. Establish the cost of the commercial alternative. Subtract the two to determine the differential.
  2. If the differential indicates home mixing may be economical, estimate the tonnage you would mix per year. The more the better, so using the farm mill for many different livestock groups is beneficial.
  3. Calculate the equipment required above and beyond what is needed for purchased, complete feeds: commodity storage bins, augers, complete diet bins, feed carts plus the mill. Some of the systems to be considered:
    • Total Mixed Ration (TMR) - silages, hay and grain fed at once. Stationary and mobile mixers available. TMR mixers work in a batch-mixing manner. They require specialized feeding arrangements (drive-through feeders for mobile units, conveyor belts or wagons for stationary units). Daily time requirement includes loading, mixing and dispensing.
    • Tractor Drawn Mix-mills - are large batch mixers, which can process dry hay by grinding into concentrate rations. They are run off power-take-off (PTO) power, and have their own dispensing auger. These allow bins to be filled at one or more locations. Daily time requirement includes loading, mixing and dispensing.
    • Stationary Volumetric Mills - use feed proportioners; feed ingredients are stored in overhead bins and flow by gravity into separate compartments located on top of a stationary mill. They produce a steady flow of the desired ration by controlled ingredient flow rate, but require calibration upon receiving a new commodity. Furthermore, they can only be used for concentrate diets. Daily time requirement includes bin level checks, timer setting and dispensing.
    • Blending boxes - use the same stationary principle as the Stationary Volumetric Mills but have no motorized parts. They are based on flow rates through slides; are probably less accurate; have no potential for rolling or grinding, and also lack self-contained augers. Daily time requirement includes bin level checks, supervised mixing and dispensing.
  4. Decide on an appropriate amortization period for the extra equipment. It should reflect the lifetime of the machinery (5-10 years).
  5. Does the differential multiplied by the tonnage over the amortization period cover the entire farm mixing related cost? Remember to factor in your additional labour costs.

Diet Supplementation for Ewes Grazing Pasture

Many producers use lightweight mangers located in the pasture area and deliver feed to the manger in pails or bags. Although this particular strategy may work for a small group of animals, the labour and physical risk to the shepherd usually hinders the success and life span of this practice in larger animal groups. An often overlooked fact is that sheep, because of their mouth structure, can retrieve feed particles from within the pasture sward. Provided the feed is delivered on a clean surface (clean grass, sod or snow) and the grains are whole or pelleted, ewes will very quickly and effectively learn how to thoroughly clean up the feed mixture. Refer to OMAF Factsheet Diet Supplementation for Grazing and Outwintering Ewes, Order No. 02-045.


In choosing a feeding system, several factors need to be considered. Most importantly are labour efficiency, safety and cost. Using a feeding or supplementation system that is fast, effective and safe will ensure the proper feed is delivered at the proper time. This in turn will improve animal performance and flock success.

Table 1. Space Allowances and Bunk Space Requirements for Sheep

Accommodation Ewes and Rams Feeder Lambs
hard surfaced
15 sq. ft. per head 6 sq. ft. per head
70 sq. ft. per head 30 sq. ft. per head
Open front shed
floor area
15 sq. ft. per pregnant ewe
10 sq. ft. per dry ewe
6 sq. ft. per head
ceiling height 9 ft. minimum 9 ft. minimum
Slotted floors**
area per animal
7 sq. ft. 4 sq. ft.
% slotted floor area
100 100
slot width
3/4 inch 5/8 inch
slat width 2 to 3 inches 2 to 3 inches
Lambing pens
(not slotted)
claiming pen only
4 x 4 ft. minimum  
lambing and claiming pen 4 x 5 ft. minimum  
Feed rack
length per head
16 inches group feeding 12 inches group feeding
6 inches self-fed 4 inches self-fed
height at throat
12 inches small breeds 10 inches small breeds
15 inches large breeds 12 inches large breeds
Feed storage
3 lb./head/day (small breeds) 2 lb./head/day
5 lb./head/day (large breeds) 2 lb./head/day
grain 1/3 lb./head/day 1/2 lb./head/day (maintenance)
1 to 2 1/2 lb./head/day (finishing)
Bedding storage 3/4 lb./head/day 1/4 lb./head/day
surface area 1 sq. ft./40 head 1 sq. ft./40 head

*Use soil surfaced feedlots only where annual precipitation is less than 20 in. With soil surface, provide a paved feeding strip adjacent to each feed bunk. This paved strip should be at least 6 ft wide, or as wide as the tractor used for cleaning, and the strip should slope at 1/2 in./ft away from the feed bunk.

** An alternative to slotted floors, for ewes, rams or lambs is 1 by 2 in 10-gauge expanded and flattened metal mesh. Expanded metal mesh floors may be covered with a solid panel to retain bedding for lambing.

Source: Adapted from Canada Plan Service, Sheep Housing and Equipment, Plan M-4000.

Table 2. Sheep Rations Commonly Fed Over a Production Year and Their Commodity Components

Animal Typical Ration Specifications Concentrate Presentation
Class Subclass Overall Specifications Forage Content % Grain Content % TMR Meal-fed1 Ground-fed2
Lamb Up to 65 lbs. Creep/starter
17-18% CP
80-85% TDN
0-40 100-60 Yes No No
65 lbs. + Grower/finisher
15-16% CP
78-82% TDN
0-30 100-70 Yes Yes 15-16% CP
82+% TDN
Replacement Ewe lamb 14-17% CP
65-68% TDN
65 35 Yes Yes 9-14% CP
80+% TDN
Ram lamb 14-17% CP
65-68% TDN
70 30 Yes
9-14% CP
80+% TDN
Ewe Maintenance   100 0 N/A N/A N/A
Flushing 10-15% CP
68-70% TDN
85 15 Yes Yes 9-13% CP
80+% TDN
Late gestation* 15-18% CP
68-75% TDN
85-60 15-40 Yes * 9-14% CP
80+% TDN
Lactation* 14-17% CP
70-80% TDN
70-50 30-50 Yes
9-14% CP
80+% TDN
Ram Maintenance   100 0 N/A N/A N/A
Conditioning 10-15% CP
68-70% TDN
85 15 Yes Yes 9-13% CP
80+% TDN
Breeding 10-15% CP
68-70% TDN
85 15 Yes
9-13% CP
80+% TDN

1 Meal-fed - When grain is fed all at one time in a bunk, i.e., slug feeding, pail feeding.

2 Ground-fed - When grain is fed all at one time but it is delivered on the ground.

* Acidosis risk

Table 3. Commodity Options by Concentrate Feeding System

Bunk Pasture and Ground Feeding
Soybean meal, mineral, whole corn, whole small grains and processed grains and byproducts or Supplement pellets, whole corn, whole small grains Soybean meal pellets, whole corn (whole small grains). Note - free choice mineral or Whole corn (whole small grains). Note - free choice mineralorSupplement pellets, whole corn (whole small grains)

For more information:
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E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca