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Can sheep eat corn? – It can get complicated.
If you’re wondering if corn is a viable option to add to your sheep diet, you’ve come to the right place. Multiple questions have to be answered here. Can sheep eat corn? Since corn is a type of grain, is it unhealthy for sheep in large quantities? Can you give corn cobs to sheep? What about corn husks or even corn silage? Can sheep digest whole corn stalks? Why is diarrhea in sheep commonly connected to corn and other types of grain? But, before we dig deep into all of those questions let’s try to answer the general question first. Can sheep eat corn?
Sheep can eat corn. Sheep usually love the taste of corn and other grains. You can add cracked corn to their diet, also whole corn cobs, corn husks, corn silage, and even corn stalks. But, before you go all in and decide to fatten your sheep in that way, there are a few things to consider.
Since corn is a type of grain, and grains are full of carbohydrates, there is a big risk of lactic acidosis (or grain overload), a serious condition that can occur if your sheep are unaccustomed to grain, especially in larger amounts. Never forget to make slow increment changes when modifying your sheep diet. You always have to give time to bacteria in sheep rumen to adapt to a new feed.
Besides lactic acidosis, there is a threat from Listeriosis bacteria when giving sheep corn silage. This is a very serious condition that can cause brain swellings and death in many cases. Also, your lambs must get to a certain age (around 1.5-2 months) before their rumens are able to digest corn.
So, basically, to give some sort of answer to this question, yes, sheep can eat corn but be very careful with the quantity of corn that you’re providing and pay special attention to your sheep age. Better to provide your sheep with too little corn, than with too much.
Is corn bad for sheep?
If your flock is healthy with pasture and hay only, there is no reason to feed them any grain at all.
Since I’ve already started listing problems that can occur when giving corn to sheep, let’s get a little more precise here. Corn and other types of grain are usually given to sheep that are in a need of some sort of nutritional boost. This nutritional boost might be needed if your ewes are pregnant or maybe they had twins or even triplets. Basically, in small amounts, it’s natural for sheep to eat grains (seeds of cereal crops). Sheep have naturally occurring bacteria in the rumen that are responsible for the digestion of starch present in the grain.
On a side note, I already mentioned that grain is full of carbs, so when farmers are feeding sheep with grain, they usually supplement it with additional sources of protein, like cottonseed or soybean. Vitamins are also added to that diet to round everything up to a well nutritionally balanced feed.
Sheep corn consumption should be regulated and introduced slowly. You should note that any dietary change in sheep can cause problems, so you should always pay special attention to your flock when introducing new feed. Also, remember that whatever dietary plan you design for your sheep, some part of it should be roughage (fibrous feed).
So, let’s finally jump to problems that corn feed can cause:
Lactic acidosis (grain overload or grain poisoning)
Lactic acidosis usually occurs when sheep eat large quantities of grain to which they’re not accustomed to. When large amounts of carbohydrates from grain get fermented in the rumen, 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.
Excess acid decreases 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 and even death.
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, diarrhoea 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 hay might be just enough to get them through (grass would only prolong the problem). Consider giving them a Vitamin B Complex shot as well. 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.
Vitamin B complex is something every sheep farmer should have in their veterinary cabinet.
Listeriosis is caused by bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. Another name for Listeriosis is „circling disease“ because sheep usually have trouble walking, their tongue hangs outside of their mouth and they start aimlessly circling.
Listeria monocytogenes bacteria is actually commonly present in the soil, so it can easily contaminate corn silage, but there are some steps that can help us prevent its growth:
- Try to keep corn silage pH below 4.5
- Sheep should be fed only with fresh and not moldy or spoiled silage
- Fecal contamination can be a big problem, try to keep the silage free from it
- Properly store and pack silage to create a needed anaerobic environment
Corn silage is for this reason not so popular with sheep farmers, in contrast with cattle farmers, because sheep are more susceptible to the disease.
Common symptoms are encephalitis (brain swelling) and abortions. The disease has a high fatality rate. Listeriosis attacks and can mostly harm animals that are not in their optimal health. That means that if you have a healthy flock, small Listeriosis contamination will not harm them. But still, better to prevent than to heal.
Another name for this disease is Overeating disease. This disease can affect sheep of all ages. It’s caused by Clostridium perfringens bacteria. These bacteria are normally present in sheep digestive system, but in small amounts. The disease appears when the numbers of these bacteria suddenly explode. The trigger causing the disease and the explosion of bacteria is the dietary change. Most commonly that is an increase in grain consumption. Sometimes also protein or milk consumption increases. In other words, the disease appears when we suddenly include a large amount of food that is rich in starch, sugar, and protein into the sheep diet.
As the number of bacteria grows, more and more potent bacterial toxins are released. These poisons can damage the sheep’s digestive tract and a lot of other organs. It can all end in fatalities as well. Mild cases are usually treated with analgesics and probiotics, sometimes with concentrated antibodies called antisera. Extreme cases might need antibiotics or even supplemental oxygen.
What is the best grain to feed sheep?
I only feed my sheep with grain when they need it. The males dont get any grain at all.
Some sources suggest that grains with higher fiber count might be better for sheep. Their reasoning is that fiber slows down digestion and in that way decreases the possibility of lactic acidosis in sheep. Grains like that are oats and sorghum.
On the other hand, any grain can cause problems. Barley is a grain that can cause lactic acidosis even faster than corn. It can also cause selenium deficiency. Hulled oats can cause respiratory problems. Also, urinary problems are usually associated with excess phosphorous in relation to calcium, and corn has the lowest phosphorous proportion of all common grains.
I believe we can all agree that everything is toxic it just depends on the dose!
Processed or whole corn? Which one is better for sheep?
I heard whole corn is not good for their teeth.
What is better, processed, or whole corn? It depends on factors like sheep weight, sheep age, and their overall diet, but one is still generally better than the other. Processing means the milling, rolling, cracking, or grinding of corn.
Just a short background before the answer. Sheep are ruminants. They eat and ferment forages in their first out of four stomachs (rumen). Rumen needs to be pH neutral to function properly, and sheep in part accomplish this with their saliva that gets produced when they chew (ruminate). So, that means that chewing is a necessity for sheep, and in return, that means that the coarser the grain the better. This all means that whole corn is better for sheep than finely processed one. This applies to all grains as well. One of the few rare situations, when processed corn is better, is when feeding lambs as the smaller particle size is more palatable to lambs, but that is also debatable.
One research done by Dr. Steve Mason concludes why whole grain is better:
- The growth rate is faster with whole grain.
- Whole grain does not cause damage to the rumen.
- When feeding whole grain, there is less probability of lactic acidosis.
How to feed corn to sheep?
Corn is very easy to give to sheep. It can even be distributed down on the ground, all other grains should be provided in troughs. Experienced farmers recommend at least 1 meter of trough space for every 6 sheep. Always make sure that your sheep feeding areas are in shade and that they always have plenty of fresh water available.
Primitive breeds like Shetlands should be given little or no grain at all.
How to prepare corn for sheep?
- Can sheep eat corn cobs?
- Sheep can eat corn cobs. Corn cobs contain a high amount of fiber, around 32 percent. They are usually regarded as fibrous material of low nutritive value, on the same level as oat straw.
- Sheep owners sometimes give whole corn ears or grounded corn ears (instead of just corn kernels) to their sheep because they’ve decided to lighten the grain rations a bit. The question is why would they do that if the research shows that the weight gain of lambs fed in that way is usually slower? Because these lighter grain rations are safer to eat and the risk of over-eating disease (Enterotoxemia) is considerably lowered.
- Sheep eating corn cobs
- Can sheep eat corn husks?
- Sheep can eat corn husks, they are quite tasty to sheep as the rest of the plant is as well. There was even one research that concluded that sheep can stay healthy on a diet containing as much as 70% of corn husks. One downside was a little slower weight gain, but researchers were not concerned about that too much. You can read about it more in-depth in the following article.
- Sheep eating corn husks
- Can sheep eat corn silage?
- Sheep can eat corn silage. Corn silage is high energy and low protein food. It’s a fermented food type. At the beginning of this post, I’ve mentioned listeriosis disease that can appear if feeding sheep with corn silage. Also, corn silage has very low levels of calcium, Vitamins D and E, selenium, and sulfur, so it’s quite important to supplement your sheep with these elements as well. Corn silage can be given to lambs and lactating sheep as well, but you should properly research all benefits and costs of this type of feed before you commit your sheep to this diet.
- Can sheep eat corn stalks?
- Sheep will eat the whole corn stalk. Some will attack corn ears and cobs directly, adult sheep will have no problem munching the stalks, lambs might chew tender leaves only. Sheep will ignore stalks only when they dry and brown too much, even then they might eat everything but the thickest and hardest parts of stalks.
- Can sheep eat distiller’s grains by-product?
- Distiller’s grains by-products are actually solids that were left over after ethanol was made. Breweries have that kind of by-products as well. You can give this feed to your sheep dry and soaked with water as well. Problem is that these by-products contain high levels of sulfur and phosphorous, and that means that they should be only a small portion of your sheep diet.
Using corn in sheep diet formulations
When you do feed your sheep with grain, give them grain only after they’ve had a chance to eat some hay first.
When drought forces you to change sheep diet to full corn, always start with a small amount of corn mixed with a standard feed like hay. Each 4-7 days you can increase the amount of corn you provide until you reach full corn rations.
There is also abundant evidence that sheep fare much better and have a better survival rate when on corn rations if you put them on intermittent feeding. That means feeding them just twice weekly or just weekly. At first, you should feed them daily, but after several periods of 4-7 days, you can start applying the reduced feeding rate. You can read more about the intermittent feeding of sheep in the following research paper.
Corn requirements for sheep by class per week
|Within 6 weeks of lambing||3.0|
Slow change in corn rations in dry adult sheep per periods
|Periods (4-7 days)||% corn||% hay (roughage)||Corn kg per sheep per week||Hay (roughage) kg per sheep per week||TOTAL per sheep per week|
Providing your sheep with corn can be a little bit tricky, but with some careful reading and experience, you should be ready to avoid all pitfalls and avoid the potential suffering of your sheep. Consider the most important advice: sheep dietary changes should be implemented in a slow fashion and fresh water should be available to your stock at all times.