Can sheep eat bread?
Another interesting topic in sheep nutrition. So, you have a large quantity of stale bread available, or you’re in a position to acquire bread for cheap and are considering using it to feed animals on your farm. Should you do it? And more importantly, should you let your sheep eat bread?
Let’s tackle basics first. Sheep are ruminants. Their digestive system is very different from the human digestive system, They actually have 4 stomachs, and the first one is called the rumen, hence the name ruminants. The rumen contains lots of bacteria and other microbes that digest cellulose from plants that sheep eat.
Another important thing for sheep owners to know here is that rumen bacteria and microbes adapt as you change sheep diet. That actually means that any diet changes in sheep should be slow and gradual. Sudden change in their feed can cause many problems, even a simple seasonal change from lush, summer pasture to dry feed during winter. So, remember to make slow changes. A good suggestion would be to slowly start increasing the proportion of new feed for at least 7 days. Pasture is the best and probably the cheapest source of sheep food. But what to do if there is not enough pasture for your sheep? Is the bread a good replacement that we can use?
It’s ok to give your sheep bread but in small doses. Feed them bread just on special occasions, either as a treat or as a source of nutrition when nothing else is available. Bread contains fats that are harmful to sheep when consumed in larger quantities, e.g. it can lead to sheep obesity, among other health issues. If the sheep is unhealthy fat, it’ll have a blob of fat above its tail at the end of the backbone. A good recommendation for sheep owners is to be cautious with bread around sheep because sheep are very fond of it and if the bread is left available to them, sheep will gladly overdo it and overeat themselves.
Grain poisoning of sheep (lactic acidosis or grain overload)
I sheared the fattest sheep I have ever seen a couple of years ago. I wondered what they’ve been feeding it and they answered bread!
Grain overload, also called lactic acidosis or grain poisoning, usually occurs when sheep eat large quantities of grain to which they’re not accustomed to. Sheep that are already accustomed to some amounts of grain in their diet might not experience any issues after consuming large amounts of grain. It usually happens to pasture-fed sheep whose diet gets changed to grain-based in a short amount of time, or if those unaccustomed sheep accidentally get access to a large amount of grain or bread and they overeat themselves with it.
So, what’s the chemical process behind lactic acidosis? All carbohydrates that sheep consume gets fermented by bacteria in the rumen, but if sheep consume finely ground carbohydrates, it gets fermented in the rumen very rapidly, and in that way, large quantities of lactic acid are produced in a short amount of time. The result of this process is that the pH of the rumen gets lowered.
All this excess acid can decrease the number of useful bacteria in the rumen and it can actually make rumen contractions cease. In the end, the animal can become very dehydrated, its blood can become more acidic, and this can lead to heart and kidney failures. There are even more negative and highly dangerous situations that can appear, like rumenitis (damage to rumen wall) or laminitis (inflammation of the hoof that results in lameness).
There are some sources that point out that grains with a higher fiber count might be safer for sheep, as the fiber actually slows down the digestion. Those types of grains would for example be oats or sorghum. These same sources mention that suffering from grain poisoning might worsen during cold weather.
So, how to know if your sheep is suffering from grain poisoning? Signs of grain poisoning are related to the quantity of eaten grain and also to each individual animal’s adaptation to a grain diet. Signs can span from reduced appetite and depression, slowing down or cessation of rumen contractions, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, smelly faeces, bloatedness of the animal (left side of the abdomen), sawhorse stance, etc. If the state progresses and the animal gets to the state that it can’t or is unwilling to stand, the animal is then likely to die within 1-2 days. There are even cases where it seemed like the animal had managed to recover, but then it got sick again a couple of days later due to secondary rumen infections.
If there is a very high chance that your animal might get seriously sick, or even die, then emergency slaughter might be your most humane option. Consider it, instead of letting your sheep suffer tremendously.
If the symptoms of poisoning have already appeared and they’re only mild, then feeding sheep with hay might be just enough to get them through (grass would only prolong the problem). If symptoms get worse, any other treatments should be administered with a help of a veterinarian. Treatments can vary from drenching with normal rumen liquid to surgeries. Depending on the treatment, it usually takes sheep six weeks to fully heal and repair their rumen lining. For a more in-depth analysis of grain poisoning, please read the following paper.
Too much bread isn’t good for sheep. One of my sheep ate just one loaf of bread once and she was ill for days. Her poop got all gloopy. She didn’t eat all for days and just sat there and looked very miserable. I was so worried about her.
Does the type of bread play any role in this? Can sheep eat whole grain bread?
Don’t let your sheep have any bread that has meat in it.
Before we go down that road and blame white bread for everything, sheep still need to consume protein, which means a big portion of their diet should be grass or hay, and not grains. Now, let’s discuss if the type of bread can make some small difference.
I think it does make a difference. Whole grain bread made with wild yeast should be OK for your sheep, but again, not in too great quantities. Whole wheat type of bread already seems problematic because it’s components have been ground up. White bread would be a clear no go. It usually contains supplements and lots of sugars which might be unhealthy for your animals. Additionally, if sheep owners do give their sheep bread, it’s sometimes cut and usually dried before being ready for consumption. Moist bread might be a choking hazard for sheep.
What else is bad for sheep to eat?
From my experience you should avoid giving your sheep the following:
- animal products
I found a very interesting project online, a global list of toxic plants for sheep. The list probably doesn’t contain every known plant that is toxic to sheep, but from the size of the database, it seems that it comes very close to it. It’s a very comprehensive list, I really suggest checking it out. When you access the site, scroll down to the database itself and apply a filter „Species Afflicted = Sheep“. By following this instruction you’ll see a whole list of plants across the world that are toxic to sheep. Access site here.
Is bread bad for all animals? What animals will eat bread?
So, what to do with leftover or stale bread from your household? If you’re not supposed to give large amounts of it to your sheep, how to use it properly?
There is always a possibility to go to a local pond to feed the ducks and geese. If you’re lucky and have a real homestead filled with pigs, chickens, or ducks then this question is not something you have to worry about. If you have your own small pond as well, you’re in even bigger luck. Why? Because fish are also known to like a fine piece of bread every so often. Adding all those animals up should probably leave you breadless at the end of the day.
A little different, but very interesting options, although not so effective, are bird feeders and squirrel feeders. Feeders can offer a lot of entertainment and relaxation moments to your stressful life.
If you have no other options go for composting bins (but be aware of rodents and other pests) or make your own breadcrumbs from the bread. When stored correctly home-made bread crumbs can last you up to six months. Certainly a cheaper option than buying expensive breadcrumbs from a grocery store.
What do sheep like to eat as a treat? What is a healthier treat for sheep than bread?
I don’t want to go into too much details here, but from my experience, sheep just adore the following treats (bolded ones could be considered a healtier option):
- dried apricots
- sheep nuts supplement
- dock leaves
Final toughts about sheep eating bread
So, at the end of this post, let’s do a quick recap:
- Bread shouldn’t be a staple food of your sheep. Most sheep owners don’t notice any problems when they start supplementing their sheep with bread, but always in small quantities.
- If possible, use bread as an occasional treat, or use it in dire circumstances only.
- Be especially careful and don’t let sheep overeat on bread.
- It can cause obesity in sheep and a quite dangerous situation called grain poisoning.
- If you do decide to introduce bread into sheep diet, do it gradually, let their digestive microbes slowly get used to the change.
- Some people mentioned using bread as a fattening mechanism when they’ve been raising sheep for meat only.