Raising sheep is still a purely theoretical thing at our house. Even so, I’d like to make sure I know what I need to. And a commonly asked question about raising sheep is deceptively simple. Can sheep eat bread? And if so, how frequently can they eat it?
Sheep should not overeat bread. Overeating bread (or grain) can cause grain poisoning (or overload) in sheep. Grain overload is a form of lactic acidosis that can cause reduced appetite, diarrhea, bloat, or death. Bread and grains are a sheep treat that requires monitoring and careful introduction.
After digging into all of the research and the anecdotal evidence, I’ve found some pretty amazing things about sheep and bread. Ready to see what the experts and scholars say? Let’s dig into the facts of bread – for the sheep, of course.
Sheep Shouldn’t Normally Eat Bread
Sheep, like other ruminants, have evolved over the years to eat grasses and hay. They need a lot of roughage (fiber) and they can digest all of that grass thanks to their 4-chambered stomachs.
Bread, while very tasty and a great source of food for others (like my own kids), isn’t something sheep have adapted to eat. Sure, they can eat it. But it doesn’t give them the fiber, roughage, or the full nutrition that they need. It can work as a primary food source in an emergency or in specific situations – and I’ll share a couple of examples with you later in this article. But generally speaking, sheep shouldn’t normally eat lots of bread.
Overeating bread or grains can cause lactic acidosis or grain poisoning as their rumens and digestive system ferment and break down the grain-heavy foods. Remember – bread is made by cooking ground-up grains with other ingredients. So it makes sense that overeating bread would cause grain overload.
Sometimes, sheep don’t even need to eat “too much” bread or grain. If they aren’t used to eating grain (or bread) period, and suddenly they get to eat it? The change in diet can trigger grain poisoning by merely eating and trying to digest the new food (whether it’s bread or grain). So if you are going to feed your sheep grains, bread, or carbohydrate-rich foods, then please introduce those foods to your sheep slowly. Give their rumens time to adjust to the new diet. Watch them for signs of grain overload.
Bread Can Cause Grain Poisoning in Sheep
Grain poisoning is caused when your sheep (or other ruminants) eat grains or grain-rich foods (like bread) without being able to digest them properly.
- Grain overload can happen if your sheep aren’t used to eating grain and they get some for the first time.
- Or your sheep could develop grain poisoning if they get far more grains than they usually do.
Signs of grain poisoning will vary from mild to moderate to severe, depending on how accustomed to digesting grain your sheep are.
- Mild signs include a reduced appetite, quieter-than-usual behavior, and diarrhea.
- Moderate to severe symptoms include foul-smelling droppings, heart and respiratory changes, and visible symptoms of bloating.
- Severe symptoms include all of the previous symptoms, plus the sheep lays down and doesn’t want to get up. Sheep can die from peritonitis and damage to the gastrointestinal system.
If you want to read more about grain poisoning, I found this fantastic PDF on grain poisoning published by the Australian government. It’s by far the easiest document to read. Plus, it talks about the best way to prevent and treat grain poisoning in sheep – and cattle. You can access that PDF in a new window by clicking right here.
But if you’d rather not read a fancy PDF right now, here’s a quick summary of treatment options for grain overload.
- Prevent the issue in the first place. If you’re going to introduce grain to your sheep, do so slowly and watch their reactions. Make sure you restrict their access to grain. Ideally, store all grain or bread in a sheep-proof container away from your flock.
- The second stage in treatment is taking all affected animals off of their grain ration. Give them hay or pasture and let them recover before slowly reintroducing any grain or breads into their diet.
- You may also want to give afflicted sheep a drench – water with sodium bicarb. This is best to do under direction of a veterinarian, though, as bicarb can make bloat worse.
- Further treatments include surgery, which absolutely should only be done by a skilled livestock veterinarian.
- For sheep that are unlikely to survive their grain overload, consider culling them or having your veterinarian humanely destroy the animal.
Whew. That’s a lot of heavy stuff. The main takeaway I got from it is this: prevent the problem at all costs. Slowly introduce grains. And when in doubt, start with oats first. Apparently it’s far easier on a sheep’s stomach than are other grains.
When Sheep Can Eat Bread
Now, I promised to share a few exceptions to the “sheep shouldn’t normally eat bread” rule. Here they are.
- Sheep can eat bread as an occasional treat – as long as they’re given proper time to adjust to eating it as a treat.
- I saw a couple of extreme examples given in forums where, due to severe weather conditions and droughts, there simply wasn’t any pasture. None. There wasn’t anything for the sheep to eat. There wasn’t any hay that could be brought in. But there was bread. So in these cases, the sheep ranchers did feed their sheep bread – because it was quite literally the only option. These ranchers didn’t share how much bloat their animals had. They only shared that it was the only option available and so they took it. Other shepherds use bread as a supplement in drought (and I’ve found a video on that, so please keep reading and you’ll be able to see that).
- Another example (again from a farming forum) was given where bread could feasibly be the main feed option for sheep – if they were being raised for meat. These forum answers pointed out that bread isn’t a sustainable, long-term feeding option for sheep. However, meat sheep aren’t in it for the long-term, so it could probably work. These ranchers did point out that bread-fed sheep would probably be much fattier than pasture or hay-fed sheep, though.
Again, these are general exceptions to the rule. If you can feed your sheep something better than bread, please do so. And if you can’t afford to feed your sheep anything better than bread on a long-term basis? Please reconsider keeping your sheep.
Here’s What to Feed Sheep Daily (instead of bread)
Sheep need lots of roughage – up to a pound of fiber daily! So if they can graze in a pasture that’s cleared of any toxic plants? That’s perfect for their feed. However, if pasture space is an issue, then you’ll want to supplement their feed with hay.
If your sheep are pregnant, you have lambs, or you’re trying to bulk up an underweight sheep, then you may also want to feed your sheep some alfalfa or grain. The grain or alfalfa is a supplement, though, and not a replacement for their pasture or hay.
And if you are giving your sheep a supplemental dose of alfalfa or grain, please be careful with the quantity. Overeating them can cause some issues with your sheep’s health if you overdo it. We talked about grain poisoning earlier in this article, but alfalfa can cause urinary calculi.
Beyond just food, sheep need clean water and minerals.
Sheep need plenty of clean water each day. Sheep can each drink 1-2 gallons of water daily on a regular day. If it’s hot, they could drink double that amount. And if your sheep are pregnant, nursing, or lactating, they’ll regularly need up to 4 gallons of water per day.
For minerals, make sure your sheep have regular access to sheep-formulated minerals. The minerals can be loose (in a feeder or holder) or in a block form. Just make sure it’s a sheep formulation and not goat formulated. Goat minerals are loaded with copper – and too much copper is toxic to sheep.
Bread Can Be a Treat for Sheep
Now, just because bread isn’t the best treat doesn’t mean you can’t feed it to your sheep ever. That’d be like telling me I can’t eat chocolate ever again. It would probably be healthier for me to never eat chocolate again, but as long as I don’t overeat it and it’s an occasional treat, I can still enjoy it.
It’s the same with your sheep. As long as it’s a treat (or a supplement) and they are used to it, then feeding bread to your sheep can be just fine. In fact, here’s a YouTube video of a sheep farmer in Australia who’s feeding their sheep some bread.
If you watch the full video, then you’ll see that part of the reason this sheep rancher is feeding their flock bread is due to a drought. They’ve already culled a good part of their flock and taken other drastic measures. But they’re doing their best to feed their sheep the best foods possible – and then supplementing with bread as a monitored treat.
There are other videos of people feeding sheep on YouTube, but many of those seem to be experiments in seeing what sheep would eat. I chose to embed this video because the narrator mentioned that they were watching their sheep – to make sure they stay safe.
So if you are going to feed your sheep (or other ruminants) bread, please watch them for their reaction or possible grain overload. Please keep your animals safe – even from overeating treats.
Treats for Sheep (Better than Bread)
Here are some great ideas for your sheep’s treats that are better than bread. Just remember that these are treats – and not their main dietary requirements.
- Alfalfa cubes or pellets
- Carrot sticks
- Sunflower seeds
When you’re giving your sheep treats, be aware of how rich in carbohydrates they are. Carbohydrate-rich treats can also cause lactic acidosis or poisoning if eaten in excess, even if they aren’t a grain.
Final Thoughts on Bread and Sheep
While we don’t have sheep in our backyard homestead right now, it’s nice to know more about the safety of bread, grains, and ruminants. It’s useful information to have now, too. Even though we don’t have sheep, we do have goats. And while there is some difference between sheep and goats, it’s good to have a better understanding of ruminants overall.
Even so, it’s incredible to see that taking things slowly and moderation continue to be two of the essential tools a backyard homesteader needs to use. So keep at it, friends. Build your backyard homestead one piece at a time. And keep researching, learning, and growing – one sheep or piece of bread at a time.
Can You House-train a Lamb? Lambs can be house-trained, although it takes a lot of work, patience, and dedication. It’s generally seen as more difficult than house-training a dog. For details on how to house train your lamb, read my article on it right here.
Will Alpacas Guard Sheep and Lambs? Alpacas will protect a flock of sheep from small predators if they have adopted that flock as their herd. For examples, video proof, and details of alpacas as guard animals, read my complete guide to alpacas guarding lambs and sheep.
Do Sheep Get Cold After Being Shorn? Sheep can get cold after shearing, depending on location, environment, and time of year. To be able to properly time shearing for your sheep’s safety and body temperature, read my article on keeping sheep safely warm after shearing season – click here to read that next.
- “Bread, Bread and More Bread – Bad for My Lambs?” BackYardHerds, 2011, www.backyardherds.com/threads/bread-bread-and-more-bread-bad-for-my-lambs.11829/.
- Dallin, Josh, et al. “Discover 4-H Sheep Clubs.” Sheep Curriculum, USU Extension, 2020, extension.usu.edu/sanpete/ou-files/SheepCurriculum.pdf.
- Griffler, Zee. “Daily Diet, Treats, & Supplements For Sheep.” The Open Sanctuary Project, 23 June 2020, opensanctuary.org/article/daily-diet-treats-supplements-for-sheep/.
- “Hobby Farmers Basic Nutrition for Sheep.” DPIPWE, Australian Government, 2020, dpipwe.tas.gov.au/Documents/Sheepfeed.mlc.pdf.
- Platt, Tom. “Feeding Your Market Lambs: A Youth Guide.” Washington State University, 2006, extension.usu.edu/cache/files/Feeding_Market_Lambs.pdf.
- “Sheep Eating Dumped Bread.” The Farming Forum, 2014, thefarmingforum.co.uk/index.php?threads%2Fsheep-eating-dumped-bread.30172%2F.
- Smith, Martin, et al. “Sheep Nutrition: What You Need to Know.” University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Davis Vetrinary Medicine, 2014, anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8476.pdf.
- Walker, Belinda. “Grain Poisoning of Cattle and Sheep.” NSW DPI, Australia, Nov. 2006, www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/101338/grain-poisoning-of-cattle-and-sheep.pdf.
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