I talk a lot about moving sheep from one pasture to another, but not much about what’s actually in those pastures. While we may picture sheep just munching huge mouthfuls of grass, their actual eating habits are very much the opposite. Sheep move around the pasture selecting the tenderest, freshest morsels while completely ignoring old foliage and tough stems. They also have plants that they prefer over others. I’ve gotten my sheep to eat bedstraw mainly by having plenty of it available after the clover, vetch and soft grasses are gone.
Clover is the mainstay protein source in the pasture. Like all legumes, clover fixes nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil. It’s a nutritious plant, and it’s easy to tell when the sheep have eaten it all because a field that once was full of clover flowers suddenly has none at all!
Vetch is another mainstay legume in my pasture that the sheep love. I happen to think that it’s very beautiful, as well. I wish I knew more about the nutrition that Vetch provides other than protein, or if the dominance of Vetch in some areas indicates something about the soil nutrients or structure.
Dairy folks know what this is: This photo is actually the first alfalfa I’d ever noticed in the wild. It is certainly the only one that was in this field, so some lucky sheep got to eat this plant. Alfalfa is the highest-protein legume and is a staple of dairy cow rations. I’ve heard through anecdata that sheep are picky about it in hay, but they don’t mind eating alfalfa pellets!
I haven’t even touched the myriad of grasses that grow in the pastures where the sheep live, but suffice it to say that the legumes have long since vanished by the time the sheep are eating grass.