Some years ago I had a surplus of cabbages on my farm. They weren’t for sale as they were damaged by hail, so why not give them to my sheep flock? I was certain that sheep could eat cabbages, but I had to check if there were any downsides to doing so, so I spent some time researching. Now let me give you all the info that I gathered regarding sheep and cabbages. Can sheep eat cabbage?
Sheep can eat cabbage, but make sure that you don’t make cabbage the staple of their diet. Hay or grass should be the only main source of sheep nutrition. Cabbage is a leafy vegetable, high in fiber and a good amount of important vitamins and minerals like potassium, vitamin K, and vitamin C. Problematic part is that cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable that contains a sizeable amount of goitrogens.
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What are goitrogens?
Goitrogens are naturally occurring compounds that can be found in many leafy vegetables, soy-based foods, and starchy fruits. So basically we’re talking about cabbage, soy, kale, sweet potato, turnip, cauliflower, millet or broccoli, etc. Goitrogens are problematic because they interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. Even their name comes from the term ‘goiter’ which actually means the enlargement of the thyroid.
Goitrogens prevent normal thyroid hormone production, mostly by making it harder for the thyroid gland to utilize iodine. Not to delve deeper into the chemistry part of the problem, but basically, goitrogens can cause problems for sheep, especially if you provide your sheep with large quantities of cabbages on a regular basis. The first signs that can point to the direction that you’ve been giving your sheep too much feed that contains goitrogens are decreased appetite, weight loss, and even reduced growth rate. Goitrogens can even impact sheep’s fertility rate. For all those reasons, be sure to restrict cabbages in the diet of your sheep. Focus on forage and hay and limit the rest.
Can sheep eat cabbage stems or roots?
Yes, sheep can eat all parts of a cabbage, including leaves, stems, and roots.
Is there any part of cabbage that is toxic to sheep?
No, there is no specific part of cabbage that is toxic to sheep.
What benefits could sheep get out of eating cabbages?
Cabbage can provide some nutritional benefits for sheep, like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. But, as mentioned before, cabbage should not be the staple of sheep’s diet.
What maximum percentage of sheep diet can consist of cabbages?
Some literature considers that up to 10-15% of sheep’s daily diet can be cabbages. But I would take that information with a grain of salt. If you have some cabbage leftovers, give them to your sheep without any worry, but that’s it. Don’t make cabbages a regular, daily occurrence in your sheep diet. Consider all the info that I gave you before regarding goitrogens. We’ll investigate the goitrogen problem in a bit more detail in the later part of this post.
Can sheep eat cooked or in any way processed cabbages?
Yes, sheep can eat cooked or processed cabbage.
Are any species of cabbages better for sheep than others?
All cabbage varieties contain goitrogens. There are differences in the goitrogens levels depending on cabbage growing conditions, maturity of cabbage, and even cabbage species, but in general, it’s all quite similar. I haven’t found out if one cabbage species is better for sheep than another because research in this area is quite limited. From the research that I’ve gathered, Chinese cabbage might be the one with the least amount of goitrogens, but still, the difference is negligible.
Can goitrogen levels in cabbages be reduced in any way before giving them to sheep?
Yes, goitrogens are water-soluble, so soaking or cooking cabbages can do the trick. You can certainly reduce goitrogen levels in that way. But I wouldn’t trust the method completely. Don’t overdo it with cabbages. Also, cooking cabbage can impact the overall nutritional value of the cabbage in a negative way.
Are cabbages bad for sheep fertility?
Yes, and it’s all related to goitrogens once again. Goitrogens impact the thyroid and its hormone levels, and that hormone imbalance can negatively impact sheep’s reproductive function as well. Hormones are nasty critters to navigate correctly.
Ordinary sheep shouldn’t eat too much of cabbage as it can make them infertile. Hebridean on the other hand can apparently eat anything.
Are goitrogens really that harmful to sheep?
I actually found a research paper that confirms everything about goitrogens listed above. It’s a study where researchers were following a bunch of lambs that were regularly fed with cabbages. At the end of the studied period they had lowered performance, and they had less weight compared to the control group of lambs. Their growth and development were negatively impacted by goitrogens. The downside of the study is that you can’t be certain that the same negative impact of goitrogens will be seen in all sheep breeds or with maybe some different sheep management styles. Still, it does show the negative impact of cabbages on sheep, so once again, don’t overdo it with the cabbages.
The study in question can be found here.
Are there any other harmful effects of cabbage on sheep?
I’ll just mention two more things here. Clean the cabbages before you give them to your sheep if you don’t know what kind of pesticides were used on them. I think this goes without saying. Also, I’ve stumbled onto another potential issue with cabbages and ruminants (sheep included), but I’m not sure if that was because of the type of cabbages that particular farm was using or if it applies to all cabbages. You can find the research paper here. It basically says that the Dorper sheep fleet and some cows that they were following had very negative outcomes because they were consuming cabbages, not because of goitrogens but because of the high sulfur content of the cabbages that ruminants were consuming. Quite an interesting read, but highly technical.
How to get sheep to eat cabbages?
It could happen, why not? You have a bunch of leftover cabbages that you want to give to sheep, but your darlings don’t even want to touch them. What to do?
- Be sure that the cabbages are fresh. Nobody wants rotten or moldy vegetables.
- Some sheep can be a bit fussy. Some want different feeds at different times of the day. Try switching that up.
- Mix cabbages with some other feed, like hay. It’ll certainly make cabbages more appetizing.
- Start with small amounts of cabbages at first. Like all new feed and sheep. Start gradually and slowly so as not to upset your sheep’s digestive system.
Sheep have been raised on brassicas for ages, so unless your cabbages are a new strain, I wouldn’t worry. Just keep it in moderation.
How to protect cabbages from sheep?
Some of you might have a different problem. You might be growing a new batch of cabbages in the same field where your sheep are grazing. That’s a risk you were willing to take, but now you want to be sure that cabbages survive after all. Here is how to proceed:
- Wood fence, wire mesh, or plastic mesh. Doesn’t matter which one, just make it tall and strong. This is a bullet-proof method.
- Cover the cabbages with some netting. Sheep won’t eat cabbages, just be sure that the net is not impacting the growth of cabbages themselves.
- You could try with some natural repellents like hot sauces, vinegar, or garlic. It might work, I haven’t tested it. Just be sure to reapply the repellent after a rain.
- Some sheep owners say that sheep don’t like the smell of onion or garlic. You could try to plant them in between your cabbages. My sheep don’t have a problem with onions, but that just might be my flock.
Sheep can eat cabbages, but keep the dosage to the bare minimum. In the long run, cabbages can negatively impact your sheep’s health, everything from sheep weight down to their reproductive capabilities. If you’re interested in additional information regarding sheep’s diet, then feel free to check a lot of other sheep nutrition posts.