PHOTO: Sarah Dicken
I’m afraid I am about to body-shame some sheep. This spring, I have seen more overfed and overweight sheep than ever, thanks in part to generous rain that has enriched pastures in my area. A lot of folks are surprised to learn how harmful overfeeding sheep can be to the animals’ health, and they genuinely do not know their sheep are overweight. Here’s what you need to know about overfeeding sheep to keep your flock healthy and svelte.
The dangers are manifold. Here are some things caused by overfeeding.
It can be difficult to spot an overweight sheep, especially when sheep are covered in a year or more of wool, but it is possible.
You can create a baseline. If you have access to a livestock scale and know what breed your sheep is, you can start by comparing each sheep’s weight to what is typical of its breed. If your sheep is near normal, chances are it’s neither over- nor underfed.
Check each sheep’s body condition to assess the nutritional well-being of your flock, using established scoring measures. This thorough resource from Australia’s Department of Agriculture can show you how to body score sheep in seconds. It includes descriptions, diagrams and video.
Listen to those in the know. If a shearer or a livestock vet mentions that a particular sheep is overweight, that person is probably right. Such people see a lot of sheep, so they have a large pool of visual data on which they make comparisons.
Talk to your vet or local agriculture extension school if you’re uncertain of or concerned about nutrition management. In general, sheep do not need supplemental grain as long as pasture or hay is plentiful, but this varies a great deal by geography. Sheep who are lactating, very young or elderly, however, might benefit from some supplemental grain.
Don’t show your love for your flock by feeding them sugary snacks such as overripe melons from the garden (which I’ve seen happen).
Do not apply these practices equally to any goats you might have. Goats have neither the body fat nor wool that sheep have. The goat is a different animal that, in general, has greater nutrition needs than sheep.