Table of Contents
Sheep and water. How much water does a sheep drink per day? How to get it correctly?
Water is, of course, an essential nutrient for all animals, including ruminants like sheep. Good quality water is a very important factor for sheep health and for sheep business profitability as well. When calculating your sheep water consumption needs, you have to take into consideration their age, condition (gestation, sickness, etc.), and weather conditions on your farm.
In general, sheep require 4 – 6 liters (1 – 1.5 gallons) of water per day. They require more if in late gestation or lactating. If you’re going for a really rough estimate, then calculate needed water for hot days on a basis that your sheep need up to 10 percent of their body weight per day.
To start with the basics, I’m sharing a table with you with the average water consumption per sheep class. For more detailed analysis, please continue and read through all topics in this article. I really advise you to at least skim over everything.
Sheep average water consumption per head per day
|Sheep class||Average water consumption per head per day (L)||Average water consumption per head per day (gallon)|
|Weaners (lambs that have been weaned, removed from milk diet)||2 – 4||0.5 – 1|
2 – 6
4 – 12
0.5 – 1.6
1 – 3.2
|Ewes with lambs (lactating ewes)||4 – 10||1 – 2.6|
As noted before, lactating sheep need more water, especially in the first 30 days following birth. Mothers of twins or greater also have higher water requirements in late pregnancy and in the lactation period than mothers of singles.
Also, on a side note, when calculating all this, know that sheep will drink water more readily when it’s ice-free during winter and when water is under shade during summer.
Do sheep drink less water in winter?
Most literature mentions a drop of approximately 50 percent in water requirements when temperatures on a farm drop to between 2°C and 22°C (36 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit). This percentage is valid even for lactating sheep. If you live in a humid environment, you might end in a situation where your sheep get all the water needs met only from grazing and/or munching on soft snow.
Since we’ve already touched on the topic of snow as a source of hydration, let’s expand this topic a little bit. Do sheep always need access to a fluid water source? Well, not really. Soft snow is quite a good source of water. Sheep can consume it without any issues. On the other hand, packed snow or ice is not very useful to sheep. That means that when soft snow is present, you mostly don’t have to worry about sheep water needs, at least not for the ones that are not lactating or are not in the late pregnancy phase. But, if everything freezes over, you have no other choice but to move sheep to an area with fluid water options. Even a few days without water (or without forage that has a high moisture content) on cold days could be very costly for sheep. Don’t let that happen, it’s just sub-standard sheep care.
Despite all winter challenges, sheep housed outdoors during winter, even with problematic fluid water options are still in a better position if they are on a fresh, quality forage than their housed counterparts. So, the conclusion is that winter water requirements for sheep are mostly going to be lower. You should use that period to prepare for warmer days when water quantity and quality is at its worst.
If you are interested to dive even deeper into winter water management for sheep, you can check the following forum discussions that I’ve noticed. These are all seasoned farmers discussing how to treat stock water needs during winter:
How much water do the sheep get from grazing?
Do sheep need fluid water or can they get all water requirements from grazing? As written before, when forage is full of moisture, sheep will drink very little water, or even none for a certain period of time. As grass or any other sheep diet gets drier, they are going to need some fluid water to help with their digestion.
An interesting thing to note is that sheep water need is correlated to feed intake. The more you feed your sheep, the more water they’ll need. So take that into consideration as well.
How long can sheep go without water? Can sheep survive without water?
There are reports that show that the Merino sheep breed can survive without water for nearly ten days. But, honestly, there is no rule for how long sheep can survive without water. It mostly depends on the weather in your location and sheep breed. Sheep can survive for days without water, but it’s very detrimental to their health.
Can sheep find water? Can sheep smell water?
Sheep have a very good sense of smell, right up to their hearing sense. For example, they won’t eat moldy feed if you offer it. They use smell for various reasons like identifying their lambs or potential mates or checking out for predators. Another reason for a good sense of smell is to locate water sources. When they have a readily available water source, they will for the most part stay within a 2.5 km radius of that water source. There are exceptions to that number, but it’s mostly correct.
Why do sheep prefer to drink still water? Are sheep afraid of water?
I don’t even think this is the right question. A better one would be, why do shepherds prefer still water? The general recommendation is to not allow sheep or any other livestock to drink from running water banks because they may cause environmental issues. Also, running water can be dangerous for your sheep. Their wool likes water and when they soak it in, the wool can become heavy very quickly, so there is always a danger of your sheep drowning.
Still, there are some dangers in still water as well. It freezes much more easily and can thus leave your flock thirsty in the middle of the winter. Also, the still water has a higher chance to contain or be a breeding ground for many diseases and insects that can hurt your sheep.
Just to add to this question a little bit. My experience is that sheep are not afraid of slow running streams. But, I can see sheep afraid of waterfalls or rapids because they make a lot of loud noise, and sheep are easily frightened. Tap running water is not a slow running stream, but here is an amusing video showing sheep drinking, let’s call it, fresh running water:
I find it quite interesting that in various Christianity-themed books you can find quite the opposite conclusions:
“Every shepherd knows,” said the Basque, “that sheep will not drink gurgling water. There are many small springs high in the hills of the Holy Land, whose waters run down the valleys only to evaporate in the desert sun Although the sheep need the water, they will not drink from these fast-flowing streams. The shepherd must find a place where rocks or erosion have made a little pool, or else he fashions with his hands a pocket sufficient to hold at least a bucketful.”
Can sheep swim?
I mentioned the possibility of sheep drowning before, as a result of their wool getting soaked and heavy very quickly. I just wanted to show you a few videos depicting shorn sheep (and sheep with naturally short wool) swimming. So, it seems everything is not so black and white. Sheep can swim in calm waters.
Newly weaned lambs not drinking water. Is this really an issue?
Since we’re already on the topic of sheep drinking water, let me mention one more important issue. For a recently weaned lamb, water availability is everything. Some of them might often be too stressed to seek water themselves and need to be shown to a water source. Your special paddock for young sheep might not be large and you would think that there is no need to show them where the water is, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so check continuously if your lambs are drinking as they should. When researching this topic, I actually came to one farmer having problems with one of his lambs drinking too much water. Lamb was drinking too much water instead of their mother’s nutritious milk. Check their story in the following link.
Water quality for sheep
There are many factors that determine whether water is suitable for sheep. So, let’s count all those factors and give them a general explanation:
- Water quality
- Algae (algal growth)
- pH values
- Other toxic elements
- Animal factors
- Environmental factors
- Feed and its quality
- Air temperature
Salinity is one of the most impactful factors that determine if the water is suitable for sheep. It represents the proportion of salts that have been dissolved in water. Salinity is usually measured in milligrams per liter or in decisiemens per meter (electrical conductivity of water). These two measures are mostly proportional, but it depends on the type of salts present. Electrical conductivity is more usually measured and milligrams are then estimated. I’ll give you a formula that they use for estimations in Australia: 1 decisiemens per meter * 670 = 1 milligram per liter.
Underground waters usually have a much bigger proportion of salts than surface waters. All animals vary in their tolerance of salts in water.
Tolerances of sheep to dissolved salts (salinity) in water (mg/L or PPM)
|Tolerance||Desirable maximum salinity for healthy growth. Suitable for all sheep. (mg/L)||Maximum salinity at which good condition might be expected. Not good for lambs and weaners, carefully with gravid ewes. (mg/L)||Maximum salinity that may be safe for limited periods of time. Only for dry, healthy, mature sheep. (mg/L)|
|Sheep||5.000||5.000 – 10.000||10.000 – 13.000|
pH values – acidity or alkalinity
Be very careful with this water factor. Even if there is apparently enough water for your stock, alkaline water that has a pH value above 8.5 or acidic water that has a pH value below 6.5 can cause health problems in sheep. Symptoms are usually weaker appetite and loss of milk production. In severe cases, it can lead to death. You can correct the water pH values, but be extra careful with administering alum for alkaline water or lime for acidic water.
Other toxic elements
Minerals are an important aspect of water, but underground water can have an overabundance of some elements and can become dangerous and toxic for sheep. There are known elements that cause lower milk productivity if their concentration in water is too high, like selenium, fluorides, mercury, lead, arsenic, and iron. Check with a veterinarian if you suspect that there is some sort of problem with your water sources.
Algae are a natural part of any water, but they especially like sunlight, high nutrient elements, and still waters. Too many algae can make water unpalatable to sheep. An algal bloom is defined as the excessive growth of algae. You should be particularly wary of blue-green algae as they can be very toxic to animals. There are some algicides that can help, but take the environment into consideration before using any.
In addition to warmer weather during summer, we shear sheep in that season, and in that way, we remove their fleece insulation. There are various mechanisms that sheep use to cool down in those conditions. They drink more water for evaporative cooling, they pant to do the same and they hide in shadows. When conditions get extreme, there are some researches showing that during those periods water consumption can increase by 78 percent. Under normal conditions, water consumption in summer is about 40 percent higher than in winter. We should be aware that during the summer heat, because of water evaporation, some water sources can become saltier. If they drink salty water, then the increase in sheep water consumption will be more than 50 percent.
If your farm is facing drought, you can expect even higher sheep water consumption as they eat more fibrous and less digestible food. They need water to help them digest it. As this happens and sheep become weaker, their salt tolerance decreases. In that event, you should consider removing salt-based blocks from your farm, especially if your water quality is marginal. More salt means more needed water and if the water is marginal or low quality, you are heading in full speed towards sheep digestive problems.
We can safely conclude that if the sheep pasture is good and green, the pasture itself might supply all the water sheep need and they might not need to drink any water for multiple weeks. If the pasture is good, that means that sheep don’t need much water and they will have no problems consuming marginal or lower quality water because they don’t need it in high quantities. If the pasture is dry, then sheep need more water to be able to digest it. In salty areas with saltbush pasture, sheep need large quantities of low salinity water to maintain the salt balance in their body.
Age and condition of sheep
You have to be extra careful around lambs, heavily pregnant and lactating ewes, weakened and older sheep as well. Provide them with higher quality water. Also, these listed sheep are less tolerant of salty water. Young weaned sheep might even grow slower because of high salinity water.
Sheep breed differences
Of course, there is a difference in average water consumption for different sheep breeds, although this topic is not very researched yet. Research in this area should be encouraged, as there are still many parts of the world with limited access to clean and fresh water, so there still exists a need for better water consumption efficiency. For example, native British sheep breeds need on average 20 percent more water than Merino sheep, especially during hot summers. In the following paper, you can also check how the native Persian breed, Blackhead Persian, outperforms, is more efficient, and uses less water than the Mutton Merino breed.