The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

What’s with the Bucket of Grain?

May 31st, 2013 · 10 Comments · Posted in farming, Sustainability

Sheep love grass, but they love grain even more

Sheep like grass, but they LOVE grain

My vision for a small pastured livestock operation centered on the basic idea of self-reliant animals foraging on grass. With millions of years of evolution under their belts, I figured my sheep, chickens, pigs and beef cows, presented with acres of green grass, could fend for themselves without a lot of interference from me.

So it was with some trepidation and a bit of disappointment that I began following the advice of the woman I bought my eight Friesian ewes from and got in the habit of feeding them grain every morning. “Not a lot,” she had said. “Maybe a half-pound each, just to keep them coming to you.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by “keep them coming to you” until I walked into their paddock with a bucket of grain. I was mobbed. They almost knocked me over. Sheep may be built to eat grass, I learned, but the LOVE to eat grain.

This is the pelleted stuff I bought at the feed store–a 50-pound bag of it. What I give them essentially is a treat because they spend the rest of the day munching on grass in the pasture. But boy, do they look forward to that treat. Every time I pass the paddock, their heads pop up. They follow me with their eyes and they start bleating. Recently I moved them into a new paddock with temporary fencing. To get them back into the main paddock, all I have to do is show up with the bucket. They follow me around like a pack of Labradors, jostling to get close to that bucket.

I think they’d grab the bucket away from me if I let them.

Grain for sheep isn’t terribly expensive, but it ain’t free either. At the moment, we aren’t making any money off these sheep–they’re just doing landscaping duty, mowing the grass. So grain is purely an expense right out of our pocket. A 50-pound bag at the Agway in Salem costs $18. If I continue feeding 1/2 pound per sheep daily, that bag won’t last two weeks. That’s $40 a month just to keep the sheeps’ attention.

I recently discovered another, more local feed option. That’s Ellsworth Family Farm, about 12 miles south of here. The Ellsworths make feed from grain they grow on their own land. It’s not “organic,” but what they call “natural.” They charge $27.50 for a 100-pound bag of sheep feed.

It may be cheaper than the industrial brand of sheep feed, but that’s still more than $27.50 every 25 days. Add in gas to drive the pickup each way to get it and pretty soon you’re talking real money, more than $400 a year.

Another sheep farmer I know says that’s money down the drain. “If you want to feed grain,” he says, “get a pig.”

That’s another thing you learn about farming: even between two farmers both raising sheep on pasture, there’s no unanimity about how best to do it.

What do you think, readers? Should I continue feeding grain to these sheep, or is it time for them to kick the habit?

Believe me, we have no shortage of grass around here.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Your comment may have to wait for approval to be published to ensure that we don't accidentally publish "spam". We thank you for understanding.


  • Thomas

    Consider alternative alternatives for grain. Find a local homebrew group and see if they would give you spent grain from brewing. Alternatively, you might be able to find a local brewer (small brewery) and see if you can buy spent grain from them. Breweries have a history of selling their grains to local farmers for cheap, or even giving it away (depending on the amount of work the farmer is willing to put in – like cleaning the mash tun). Also, you could always take up homebrewing yourself (yum), but you would still need to find other sources as you could not feed a farm by yourself.

    Spent grain is a great source of nutrients for animals, even dogs. You can also find recipes for things such as beer bread, grain breakfasts, etc for yourself. Do be careful, as I have heard stories of farmers who kept the mashed grain a wee bit too long before feeding their cows, resulting in cows getting tipsy.

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for that suggestion, Thomas. Best I can determine, the nearest brewery to us is 30 miles away, which may be prohibitively far to drive for the small number of animals we have and the perishable nature of spent grains. In other words, you’d have to be picking up quite a load to make the trip worthwhile, then storage becomes an issue. However, the spent grain could also feed a large compost operation or simply be spread on the pastures as organic matter. I’m looking into it. It could also be that the spent grains at this particular brewery are already spoken for. We don’t normally drink beer, so home brewing would not be an option for us.

  • HommerofTC

    Remember your not in the city where 30 miles seems an exstream as opposed to an average in farm life. I have kept spent grains for up to 6 months without a problem and they are well worth obtaining. Most brewers will give or fill three or four 55 gallon drums full of grains for free, sometimes 15 bucks a ton. So by your calculations that would save you a few hundred dollars in feed. Enjoy your adventures

  • Marcello Napolitano

    One thing to consider: Are they lactating females, either being milked or feeding their young? If so, they may lose body condition if eating grass alone due to the net loss of calories and protein. Other than that, I would use the power of the magic power wisely, and only on special occasions.

  • Ed Bruske

    No, Marcello. These ewes are not lactating or feeding young. But you’re right. If they were, they would need a richer diet. Of course, animals in the wild manage to give birth and feed their young just fine on what they forage.

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for that intel. We’ll see where this leads. Miles traveled is a consideration with gas at $3.69 a gallon and the pickup getting maybe 15 miles per on a good day. But if, as you say, the spent grain will keep for a few months, it could be worth the trip. Assuming, of course, that the brewery has spent grain to give.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Be cautious with spent grains. If you don’t store them properly you can kill your sheep or make them sick and incur a very expensive vet bill. I don’t know what an ambulatory vet in your area charges but in mine, they charge $60 just to come to the farm and if you have more than one sick sheep you’ll need a horse trailer to haul them to a vet.

    Personally I’d stick to the dry grains and after feeding the sheep every day for say a week, start weaning them until it’s an occasional treat and you use it to move them, catch them up, etc.

    The gal you bought the sheep from is right. You do want to keep them coming to you. Animals have no reason to want to be with us. We have to give them that reason through treats, scratches, etc. But first and foremost they need to be comfortable around you, a stranger. That’s what the grain is for right now.

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for that confirmation, Joanne. The grain is a big help moving the sheep from one paddock to another. They will follow an empty bucket. Or are they following me? I can’t tell anymore. All I know is they can’t wait to get into the next paddock once they’ve watched me dole out their morning grain.

  • Joanne Rigutto

    Right now they know they’re going to get the grain. So they’re following the grain. Once you start weaning them off, only giving them occasionall grain, it’ll set up gambling behavior. Every time they see you or the bucket they’ll think that maybe there’ll be some grain. They’ll keep that hope up even if they only get the grain once in a while. And, it’s also handy that if they’re a ways off and you have the bucket but no grain, you can put sticks or rocks or even sheep droppings in the bucket and the rattle will call them. 😉

  • Ed Bruske

    You’re absolutely right, Joanne. The sheep will follow the bucket whether there’s anything in it or not. But it does help if there’s something rattling around inside. This morning the sheep were standing at the gate out of the permanent paddock at 5 a.m. bleating for their grain. The other reason not to give it to them is they just lie down after eating the grain and aren’t eating the grass, which is the whole point of having them.