Can I feed grain to my sheep/goats?


Yes and there are good reasons to do so. At the same time, some production environments don't require supplemental grain feeding. Grain is mostly fed to animals with higher rates of reproduction and potential for growth.

It is common to supplement forage diets with grain, especially to the animals with higher nutritional requirements, such as lactating females and young, growing lambs/kids. Energy is usually the most limiting nutrient in sheep/goat diets. Grain is a more concentrated source of energy than forage. it is often a more economical source of energy than forage and can be substituted for some of the forage in the diet. Grain is easier to handle and less bulky to store than hay. There is less waste when feeding it. Less methane is produced when grain is fed to ruminants.

Grain is the dry edible seeds of cereal crops (cultivated grasses): barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum (milo), triticale, and wheat. Barley, corn (maize), and oats are the primary grains fed to sheep/goats. Corn is the highest in energy (and starch) and is the standard to which other grains are compared. Barley has about 90 percent of the feeding value of corn and can replace all of the corn in a ration. Oats is lower in energy and higher in fiber. It is considered the "safest" grain for this reason. It is less likely to cause digestive upsets. However, performance is usually less with oats.

The choice of grain usually depends on local availability and price per nutrient provided. To compare grain costs, you need to calculate a per pound (cwt or ton) cost and divide it by the percent energy in the grain. Corn that costs $7/bu provides energy at a lower cost than barley that costs $6/bu. Similar calculations can be used to compare the cost of nutrients provided by grain vs. hay. Corn that costs $7/bu is a more economical source of energy than hay that sells for $5 per bale (40-lb. bales).

Feeding grain
While it's acceptable and often advantageous to feed grain to sheep/goats, it's essential that it be done properly. The microbes that digest the starch in grain are different from the ones that digest the cellulose (in forage). The rumen needs time to adjust. Too much grain and too much grain too fast can lower rumen pH and cause a build-up of lactic acid, leading to acidosis or bloat. Overeating disease is usually the result of animals transitioning to high concentrate diets too quickly. Short-docked lambs consuming high concentrate diets are more likely to prolapse their rectums. Polio is most common in animals that are fed high starch (grain) diets.

Cereal grains are high in phosphorus, but low in calcium. If male sheep/goats, especially wethers, are fed too much grain relative to other feeds, they will be at risk for developing kidney (bladder) stones, which can be fatal. When males are being fed concentrate diets, it is important that the diet be balanced for minerals. The ratio of calcium to phosphorus should be at least 2:1. It's a good idea to add ammonium chloride to the feed as further prevention. Green feeds are better sources of vitamins A and E than grain, so these vitamins are usually added to concentrate diets.

Cereal grains are not complete feeds. They are primarily energy sources. To make a complete (balanced) feed, you need to mix the grain with other ingredients to provide sufficient protein, vitamins, and minerals. Sometimes, forage is used to provide the other required nutrients. For example, a diet of corn and alfalfa hay is suitable for finishing lambs, so long as sufficient legume hay is consumed. Grains should not be added to otherwise complete (balanced for all nutrients) rations, as this will skew the ratio of nutrients, especially calcium to phosphorus.

It's very important that grain be introduced slowly to the diet of sheep/goats. It should be increased incrementally. Take a few weeks to do it. Sheep/goats are ruminants and should have a certain amount of long stem forage (effective fiber) in their diets to maintain healthy digestion.

Whole grain feeding
Whole grain is preferred to processed grains (ground, cracked, rolled, or crimped). It is better that the animals do their own grinding of the feed. Processing does not seem to improve the digestiblity of grain as it does in cattle. In fact studies have shown that feed intake, growth rate, and feed efficiency is higher with whole grains. It may also produce a firmer more desirable finish on the carcass.

Digestive upsets are less apt to occur with whole grains. There is less probability of overeating disease and acidosis. One way to feed whole grains is to mix them with a commercial protein-vitamin-mineral supplement. When combined with soybean meal, minerals should be added to the ration to provide a proper balance of calcium to phosphorus. Limestone is the best source of calcium.

Whole grains are a good choice for feeding ewes/does. If ewes/does in late pregnancy are being fed a decent quality hay, the only feed supplement they usually require is energy. If they are being fed a high quality legume or legume-grass mix during lactation, energy supplementation may be all that they require. Whole grain can meet both of these needs.

The exception to whole grain feeding is young lambs/kids that lack functioning rumens. These pre-ruminants require highly digestible feeds with small particle size. The two best ingredients for creep rations are cracked corn and soybean meal. Pelleted creep rations are also common. The other reason to process grains is to prevent sorting of feed ingredients. This is advisable for free choice feeding.

Mycotoxins are a risk when feeding grain. They are poisonous compounds produced in moldy grain. They are the result of fungal contamination during the growth, harvest, or storage of grain. Mycotoxins can adversely affect animal production and health. Grain can be tested for the presense of level of mycotoxins. There are various additives (mold inhibitors and binders) that can be added to the feed to prevent problems.


Additional reading

The truth about grain: feeding grain to small ruminants
Feeding grain to sheep
Feeding sheep whole or processed grains
Feeding barley to sheep - North Dakota State University
Effect of barley and oats ... on fattening lambs
Mold and mycotoxin problems in livestock feeding