Sheep are herbivores that browse and graze most of the time, with the average ewe consuming about 3/4 of a ton of total fodder (pasture and hay) per year. Because sheep receive better nutrients from converting grasses and hays to energy than commercial grain diet, pasture and the various types of hays make up the majority of the sheep's diet. There are three types of hays, and not all of them are safe to feed all the time.
A good quality maintenance hay can be fed when sheep are off pasture and during winter months when pastures are bare. Sheep prefer fine, leafy hays rather than a thick, course hay; because more is consumed, providing a more palatable hay results in less waste and more satisfied sheep. Timothy is the most common grass hay fed because of its ability to grow in colder temperatures; however, other types of grass hays are orchard grass and fescue.
Ewes and Lambs
When sheep are gestating and lambing, their bodies produce chemicals and perform tasks that require nearly twice the energy and nutrient needs than under maintenance conditions. Legume hays are higher in calcium and protein than regular grass hays, and can be fed during times when extra nutrients are required for optimal health conditions. Lambs and ewes benefit from alfalfa because it has nearly twice the amount of calcium and protein as other legume hays.
Rams and Wethers
Alfalfa should only be given to rams and castrated males (wethers) on rare occasion because of the excess calcium results in kidney stones. If rams are do not receive any alfalfa, they still require additional sources of protein throughout the year, especially rams at breeding season. Clover is also a legume hay with less calcium and protein than alfalfa hay, which may make a good alternative depending on the type of sheep being raised.
While cereal grain hays such as oat can be fed to sheep, this type of grain must be harvested at a specific time of year to prevent nitrate poisoning to livestock. Also, to prevent bloat, never "switch" hays on your sheep; rather, always slowly incorporate new types of hay and legume silage into existing hay and silage mangers for a period of time before feeding only the new hay. To prevent illness and death, never feed hay that is wet, musty or moldy or has been treated with pesticides; rather, always feed hays that are clean, dry and have a sweet or clean smell.