When you’re planning your backyard homestead, it’s nice to know what the upper and lower limits are for animals – just in case. That way, you’ll know what they can (and can’t) tolerate. So how long can sheep go without food and water?
Sheep need to eat daily, or they risk eating something dangerous. Toxic plants may kill sheep within hours, while food starvation can take two weeks. Properly pastured sheep may be able to go without water for months or years on end, depending on the sheep, pasture, climate, and weather.
Ready to dive into some amazing facts about how hardy sheep can be in the right conditions? Keep reading for some really crazy (but cool) information.
How Many Days Can Sheep Go without Water?
Sheep can go as long as years without drinking water, provided it’s cool and they have a pasture full of water-rich grasses and clovers. In a rich pasture, sheep can get sufficient water from dew, the grass itself, or even soft snow. So as long as the weather is cool enough, sheep can survive for months (or years) without being watered.
However, if it’s hot outside, sheep may only last 3-10 days without water. When it’s hot outside sheep depend on the water to help cool themselves. There’s a range to that answer because it’s going to depend on what kind of pasture and food the sheep do have available.
Sheep that have some pasture available will last longer without water than those sheep that don’t have any pasture. After all, grass has a good bit of water inside of it. However, if the grass is too dry (and therefore not full of water), then that may actually speed up dehydration for your sheep – and shorten how long they could survive without any water.
Now, there are a few other factors that determine how long a sheep can go without water, so let’s go into those.
Weather Conditions Affect Water Consumption
I know that sounds like an answer Captain Obvious would give, but it’s still true. Most animals drink water as a way to cool themselves off when it’s hot outside. This includes sheep. So a sheep will consume more water when it’s hot than when it’s cold outside.
Plus, when it’s cooler (or even cold), there’s actually more dew available on the grasses and pasture. And the grass will be richer – and more full of water. After all, it won’t be all burned from being too hot. The sheep can use these other water sources to supplement – or even fully replace – their daily water needs.
In my research, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that sheep can eat soft snow to meet their daily water needs, too. Ice or rough snow won’t work as well, though.
In any case, hot weather means sheep need more water. And cooler weather means sheep need less water – both because they aren’t as hot and because they’re able to more fully supplement their water intake with dew, more water-rich grasses, or snow.
The Physical State of Sheep Affects Water Needs
Sheep have different water needs depending on their stage of life. When they are actively growing, pregnant, or lactating then their water needs significantly jump when compared to a sheep that’s in a state of maintenance.
The extent of this need also depends on how many lambs the pregnant ewe is carrying. Ewes carrying singles need less water than ewes carrying twins or multiples. More so, lactating sheep have a high water requirement. As a rule of thumb, ewes carrying twins require a lot of water even when the temperature is cold (and the other sheep need less water).
So if you plan to keep and breed sheep in the winter, then you may still need to supply them with fresh water to drink.
The Water Content of the Sheep Feed
The water content of the feed may also determine whether the sheep needs more water or not. This is when how and where you shelter your sheep will come into play. It’s also going to be where the size of your backyard pasture comes into play.
After all, if your sheep don’t have a sufficiently large pasture to rely on dew for their water needs, then you’re going to have to supply that water. Furthermore, if your sheep can’t rely on the pasture for food, then you’re also going to need to supplement their feed.
Feed and silage can be fairly dry, which means that your sheep will need additional water to maintain a proper level of hydration. Don’t worry – your sheep can manage that on their own as long as they’ve got enough food and water on hand.
It’s still your job to make sure they’ve got enough food and water, though. So think about what kind of space, pasture, and feed options you’ll be providing your sheep. Then, make sure they’ve got enough, on-demand water available to stay hydrated. This is why most sheep experts recommend always leaving water out for sheep. That way, they can stay properly hydrated no matter the feed situation.
How Often Do Sheep Need water?
Given that water is an important nutrient, they need it as often as possible. It’s best to leave it out all the time, so that sheep can get a drink on-demand (any time they need a drink). Although a lot of factors determine the water requirements, you still need to provide them with an adequate amount of water at all times.
You also need to give sheep clean water, as they won’t drink visibly gross water. Plus, gross water increases the risk for algae, which can in turn cause all sorts of sicknesses and toxicity-related problems.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some instances in which sheep can get all of their water from dew, snow, or from eating pasture grasses. However, even in these instances, the sheep need to be monitored for their nutritional and water needs. So if you aren’t 100% sure that your flock is getting enough water from their environment, go ahead and provide some safe drinking water.
And if you are feeding your sheep any dry grass or hay, make doubly sure you increase the amount of water available for your sheep. Those dry foods will need a sufficient amount of water to offset all that dry food.
If there is a perceived water shortage, the sheep will eat less since they need to balance their forage and water intake. On the same note, if the quality of water is bad they will cut down their feed intake. This will not only increase the prevalence of diseases but also cut their meat and wool yields. So always make sure that your flock has enough food and water.
A fun note about sheep and water: sheep prefer still water. So while it’s tempting to provide them with a fountain to keep the water flowing and clean, know that it may scare your sheep. Stick to still, clean water. Don’t worry – more on sheep and their weird water fears later.
Water Requirements of Sheep
The overall water requirements of sheep vary greatly, depending on breed, location, weather, feed, pasture quality, and hidden water sources (like dew). Even so, I did find some good general guidelines as to how much water your sheep needs.
- Adult sheep should drink 1-2 gallons of water daily.
- Ewes should drink 2-3 gallons of water daily.
- Feeder lambs should drink 1 -2 gallons of water daily.
- Lambs should drink 0.5 – 2 gallons of water daily, depending on if they’re still nursing. Nursing lambs need less water, while weaned lambs need more water.
Remember that sheep always need clean water. Sheep also need more water during hot weather or when they’re not in a maintenance phase.
Sheep need water available on demand, so it’s important to provide fresh water at all times. When it’s hot out, put some water in a shady location so it can stay cold during the heat of the day.
Are Sheep Afraid of Water?
This is a fun question with several parts to it. In general, sheep love water – for drinking. Otherwise, they don’t much care for it in general, although there are individual exceptions to this, of course.
- Sheep love still water – but only for drinking. They quite love it, actually.
- Sheep are wary of running water. They’ll look for quieter waters for drinking.
- Sheep aren’t known for swimming. In fact, most sheep only swim if there’s not much other option.
In general, sheep prefer still water. While it might seem that they like running water because of its low contamination and stagnation, they are a bit resistant when it comes to approaching running water.
This can include running water fountains, so be careful. They take some training to get your sheep to use them. If you don’t want to do any sheep training, stick to still water sources – like buckets or water sources that only circulate below the surface.
When Will Sheep Swim?
Swimming sheep aren’t a common sight for several reasons. First, sheep are slightly terrified of running water. And for good reason! Think about trying to swim in all that heavy wool. Older sheep, pregnant ewes, wool-heavy sheep, and those that are in poor health are at a greater risk of drowning.
Even so, there are a few instances when sheep will face the terror of swimming.
- To mate – Sheep will cross water sources in order to mate.
- For food – Sheep will swim across the water to get to a better food source or pasture.
- Fun – Some individual sheep will swim for fun.
- Shepherd or Sheepdog – Sheep will swim when they are led by their shepherd or sheepdog to cross the water.
- Fear – Sheep will swim across the water to escape a predator.
Some sheep will also swim in order to get clean – especially before the shearing season. However, this usually only happens when it’s encouraged by a shepherd, a sheepdog, or both. Swimming can be a great way to clean the wool.
If you’ve never had an opportunity to see sheep swim, don’t despair. Once you’ve seen it, then you’ll realize that they only swim out of absolute necessity. It’s not exactly a fun activity for most sheep.
What’s the Best Sheep Watering System?
The best watering system is the one that works for both you and your sheep while providing clean, still water to your flock. This could mean a bucket, a trough, a piped system to a pond, or something else. Here are a few options that work with sheep.
Black rubber buckets are a great backyard option.
- They stay relatively clean – and cleaning them is easy (all you do is spray them out).
- They come in a variety of sizes and shapes.
- They’re crush-proof by hooves and crack-proof no matter the weather.
- They’ll easily last several years, even with daily use.
- You can get them anywhere. Here’s what they look like on Amazon, though you can also get them at your local feed store.
The biggest downside to buckets is that they do need to be rinsed and refilled daily. This is especially true if you get the wider buckets, as sheep will step in them and muddy the water.
For a smaller flock, you may want to get one of the smaller hanging or fence-mounting buckets to help your flock have clean water. However, those are smaller – usually, they only hold a couple of gallons each. This is the one we have (click here to see it on Amazon) and I love it.
Automatic waterers are a great way to make sure that your sheep always have clean water. You can attach it to a hose or a large watering tank.
- They have less water waste.
- Your sheep can activate the waterer to get clean water at any time.
- There are all sorts of models to choose from.
- They last a long time.
- You can get them anywhere. Here’s the model we picked, as seen on Amazon.
The biggest downside to automatic watering systems is if you have freezing winters. During the winters, these may freeze up – especially if you’re using a hose. It may do better if you’ve buried piping below the frost line, but anything exposed is at risk of freezing – and cracking.
Every winter, we drop a de-icer (click here to see which model we picked on Amazon) into the tank. That helps keep the water from freezing, but that doesn’t mean that the automatic waterers won’t freeze up. We check them regularly.
And in case you’re wondering, here’s the livestock watering tank we use, as seen on Amazon. But don’t automatically buy it or any other livestock products there without first pricing it out at your local livestock feed store. It’s probably cheaper there.
Other options include watering troughs and ponds.
- With watering troughs, you need to be careful that they aren’t too high for the sheep to get to.
- Ponds also need to be addressed carefully – especially if you have lambs. Ponds can become a drowning risk for lambs, pregnant ewes, or older sheep.
My yard isn’t big enough for a pond – at least not one that would look good. In our yard, it would look like a mudhole – and be a hazard for my young children who happen to love both water and mud. So I vetoed that idea.
And we have dwarf-sized livestock, so a trough is a no-go for us, either.
So make sure you take these factors into account in deciding how to water your livestock.
How Many Days Can Sheep Go Without Food
Biologically speaking, sheep can go without food for a couple of weeks before succumbing to starvation. Realistically, though, sheep are far more likely to die of poisoning or sickness well before they starve.
- Hungry sheep are going to eat – and that includes dangerous things they’d otherwise avoid.
- Even if the sheep don’t eat something poisonous, a food imbalance (including the lack thereof) in their rumen can lead to all sorts of acidosis or other health problems. This will kill them in hours or days – not weeks.
So sheep shouldn’t go without food – even for a day. Because they can get into trouble that fasts with rumen imbalance or in eating something toxic to their system.
There have been some extreme instances where, during a drought where there was absolutely nothing for sheep to forage on, shepherds fed their sheep bread in order to keep them alive. It’s not the best idea, but it can work in an emergency. Make sure you check out my article on feeding your sheep bread for that story and more information, though.
Can Sheep Find Their Own Food?
Sheep in a grassy pasture will naturally graze on the available grass.
Sheep in a dirt paddock (that has a full hay rack or a full feed trough) may stumble across it and start munching. Sheep always do much better if they are led to the food first.
Once there’s a distinct food-related pattern, they can usually manage on their own.
The Kind of Food That Sheep Need
Sheep are grazers and ruminants who need grasses, hays, and fiber. In most cases, they’ll be eating exclusively on a diet of hay, silage, grains, and pasture grasses. Sheep rarely eat formulated feed.
Remember how sheep are ruminants? They must first ferment their food in their complex digestive system (specifically their rumen). Once they’ve grazed and eaten for a while, they’ll take a break to chew their cud, rest, and digest. Sheep can spend upwards of 8 or more hours a day grazing.
Pregnant or nursing ewes and growing lambs may also need grain as a dietary supplement. You do need to be careful about the quantity and quality of grain. But this can be a great way to get them more calories in their diet – and it’s a fun treat for them.
In any case, here’s what kind of food sheep actually need.
Sheep Need Pasture Grasses or Hay
The best food for sheep is a high-quality mix of pasture grasses and grazeable plants. Mixed grasses and clovers are great for sheep. A healthy adult sheep should look like it’s constantly eating grass or hay while awake.
According to the Open Sanctuary Project, the average adult sheep consumes approximately 0.03 pounds of grass per pound of their body weight.
That’s just for sheep in maintenance, though. If they’re young, growing, old, pregnant, nursing, or sick, a sheep may need more calories to support their growth and healing.
Sheep also need a diet high in fiber. This is so that their rumen has something to do. If they don’t have a high-fiber diet, then the sheep may try to ingest fiber from other sources. That can get dangerous – fast.
As far as keeping your pasture cleared of any toxic plants, there’s some mixed thinking on that.
- Most sources say to make sure your field is clear of anything poisonous. I get that – it’s helping keep your sheep safe.
- However, most shepherds say (in forums and various websites) that as long as sheep have sufficient food, then they’ll naturally avoid the poisonous stuff. They point out that using chemicals to kill the poisonous plants is far more likely to attract the sheep than the toxic plant itself will.
In any case, be aware of anything in your pasture or yard that’s poisonous to sheep. If possible, fence it off or dig it out. And avoid using any chemical sprays to kill it.
Minerals and Supplements that Sheep Need
Sheep need sheep-formulated minerals on demand. These can be in a block or loose. However, make sure that it is formulated for sheep.
Sheep have copper toxicity that’s lower than most other livestock – so you can’t get a cow or horse’s minerals and expect it to work. Goat minerals are hazardous to sheep, as goats need a lot more copper in their diet.
The other mineral to watch is calcium. If sheep are eating a calcium-rich diet (usually via feed pellets), then adding extra calcium via minerals can put them at an increased risk of urinary calculi (sheep kidney stones).
Sheep can also be given access to black oil sunflower seeds to boost their vitamin E and other trace minerals, which are beneficial to their health. Sometimes, baking soda may also be beneficial.
If you are ever concerned about your flock’s feed, mineral intake, or overall health, please talk to your veterinarian.
Treats that Sheep Enjoy
Although sheep are natural grazers, an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping them motivated and happy. Some of the most common treats include apples, grapes, lettuce, celery, pears, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, watermelon, and oats. Some sheep even enjoy a little bit of bread.
Just keep treats rare – they’re treats, not dinner.
Foods for Sheep to Avoid
Like other herbivores, there are some toxic plants and foods that must be kept away from them. These include foods such as avocado, animal products of any kind, cassava, buttercup, kale, lilacs, lily of the valley, and many ornamental plants.
Thankfully, most sheep will naturally avoid poisonous plants as long as they have sufficient pasture or hay to eat.
So if you catch your sheep eating your lilac bush, know that they may be out of hay or pasture grasses. Once you get them away from the lilac bush, refill their feed. And then call your vet to discuss options for the lilac munching sheep.
Supplementary Feeding (with Grains or Grasses)
Sheep who are growing, pregnant, lactating, or ill may need more calories than a sheep in maintenance (one who’s not growing and healthy). These sheep may benefit from some supplementary feed – usually in the form of grains.
Grains are a great choice, as they not only add important calories but also provide a protein boost as well as other macro and micronutrients. It’s also effective in preventing weight loss when there is no pasture.
However, grains are often seen as a special treat for sheep. They love them! So take it easy. Make sure that the grains are rationed only to those who actually need them.
Or if feeding your sheep grain isn’t viable, plant some protein-rich grasses or clovers in your pasture. You could fence off a small area of your pasture to let them grow. Or plant them in the resting pasture before you rotate the sheep back in. Just let them get at least 6 inches tall before you let the sheep at them.
How to Figure out Sheep’s Food Requirements
The best way to figure out if sheep are eating well is to look at their overall health. You want sheep that are well-proportioned and filled out – without being obese.
If that’s happening, then you’re feeding your flock the right amount of food.
You can also do this by using the 0.03 pounds of food per pound of sheep as a general guideline. However, if you don’t want to weigh your sheep then you can still figure out how to feed your flock the right amount of food by watching their behavior.
Here are some signs that your sheep aren’t getting enough to eat.
- If your sheep are trying to get into plants that they shouldn’t or normally wouldn’t touch.
- If your sheep look too skinny.
- If your sheep are beginning to fight over food or water.
- If there are beginning to be more health or sickness issues.
If you notice any of these issues, please address the overall feeding schedule and quantity. Then be sure to call your veterinarian for further advice.
While sheep are by no means picky about the kind of food they eat, you do need to make sure that they get fed daily. Otherwise, they risk sickness and death. This could be from eating things they shouldn’t or from a rumen imbalance (usually acidosis).
And sheep need water every day. However, that doesn’t always mean that you need to fill up a bucket for them. This will depend on your local weather patterns and what the pasture is like each morning.
Or if you’re trying to keep sheep in your backyard homestead, then it means that you need to feed and water your sheep every day. And that you should check on them every day. Checking on our animals every day is one of my favorite activities. It’s a calming, relaxing part of my day – and one that grounds me.
So get out there and enjoy your own backyard homestead, friends. But first, go read this article I wrote on Portion Control: Do Sheep Know To Stop Eating?
Can You House-Train a Lamb? House-training a lamb is possible, though it takes more patience and practice than house-training a dog or cat. Read my article on house-training lambs for all the steps and tips.
Will Alpacas Guard Sheep? A single alpaca will guard up to 50 sheep and lambs, provided they adopt the sheep as its herd. Read my article about how and when alpacas defend sheep – including lambs.
Is It Possible to Keep Sheep Quiet? Sheep are usually quiet animals, so noisy sheep are a problem anywhere (but especially in a backyard!). Read my article on how to keep sheep quiet for all the details.
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- Barking Rock Farm. www.barkingrock.com/sheep101.htm.
- Dallin, Josh, et al. “Discover 4-H Sheep Clubs.” Utah State University Extension, May 2014, doi:https://extension.usu.edu/sanpete/ou-files/SheepCurriculum.pdf.
- Ehrhardt, Richard. “Do Sheep Always Need Access to a Fluid Water Source?” Michigan State University Extension, 20 Sept. 2018, www.canr.msu.edu/news/do_sheep_always_need_access_to_a_fluid_water_source.
- Griffler, Zee. “Daily Diet, Treats, & Supplements For Sheep.” The Open Sanctuary Project, 25 Sept. 2020, opensanctuary.org/article/daily-diet-treats-supplements-for-sheep/.
- “Sheep – Water Management – Sheep Tagging – Traceability.” Agrismart, 30 Oct. 2019, www.agrismart.co.uk/industries/agriculture/sheep/.
- “Sheep 201: Feeding and Watering Equipment.” The Purpose of Sheep 101 Is to Teach Students, Teachers, 4-H and FFA Members, and the General Public about Sheep, How They Are Raised, and the Contributions to Mankind., www.sheep101.info/201/feedwaterequip.html.
- “Small Farms.” Animals – Small Farm Program – USU Extension, smallfarms.usu.edu/animals/index.
- “Small Farms.” Pastures – Small Farms – USU Extension, smallfarms.usu.edu/plants/pastures.
- “Supplementary Feeding and Feed Budgeting for Sheep.” Agriculture and Food, www.agric.wa.gov.au/feeding-nutrition/supplementary-feeding-and-feed-budgeting-sheep.
- “Water Requirements for Sheep and Cattle.” NSW Government Department of Primary Industries, June 2014, doi:https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/96273/Water-requirements-for-sheep-and-cattle.pdf.