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Strategies for Coping with Drought for the Sheep Flock

Livestock Update, October 2005

Scott P. Greiner Extension Animal Scientist, Sheep, VA Tech

A lack of precipitation throughout Virginia over the last 30+ days has resulted in poor pasture. This lack of available forage may carry over into late fall and winter, as stockpiling yields have been reduced in many areas. Sheep producers are challenged with providing the ewe flock adequate nutrition through the breeding season, yet minimizing supplemental feed costs during this maintenance portion of the production cycle. The following management considerations may be useful for flocks with low pasture reserves:

  1. Wean lambs and place on feed. The ewe nursing lambs has energy and protein requirements 200-300% that of dry ewes. Lambs older than 60 days of age are not receiving significant nutrition from a lactating ewe. Lambs can be removed from pasture, and placed on feed in a drylot facility. Removing the lambs from pasture also serves to decrease the grazing pressure on pastures, and allows for existing forages to be used for maintenance of the ewe flock. There are several protein supplements that are formulated to be mixed with whole shelled corn for growing/finishing lambs. These diets can be provided relatively inexpensively, and do not require supplemental hay when whole shelled corn is fed. Target these lambs to be sold in the fall.
  2. If pastures become short enough that supplemental feed is necessary for the ewe flock, consider feeding corn or barley to ewes. Feeding 0.5 to 1.0 lb. per head per day will help "stretch" pastures and decrease the ewe's dependence on limited pasture forages as the sole nutrient source. Corn or barley can be fed relatively cheaply, with the hopes that moisture and adequate forage will return. Feeding grain also has the added benefit of flushing the ewes during breeding, which will result in an increase in lamb crop percentage. Flushing is most effective on ewes that are in less than desirable body condition.
  3. In some situations, pastures may become so depleted such that the ewe flock must be provided their entire diet through supplemental feed. In these situations, remove the flock from pastures to allow forages to recover once moisture is received. Since the ewe's nutritional requirements are low (assuming ewes are dry), utilizing poor to average quality hays is an option. A 175 pound ewe would require 3.5 pounds of hay (50% TDN, 9% crude protein) to meet her maintenance requirements for energy and protein. Limit feed hay to prevent consumption above requirements, and to minimize wastage. If hay supplies are short, supplementing with grain will help limit the amount of hay needed. Supplementing grain will be most economical if hay needs to be purchased. However, ewes need to consume 1% of their body weight as roughage to maintain rumen function. For the 175 pound ewe, a minimum of 1.75 pounds of hay needs to be fed. To meet maintenance requirements, an additional 1 pound of corn per day would need to be fed.
  4. Be sure to follow an strategic deworming program, even during dry conditions. Excessive worm loads will cause additional stress on the flock, and short pastures are conducive to parasitism. In most situations, the flock needs to be dewormed every 21 days.
  5. Provide a selenium-fortified complete mineral formulated for sheep to the ewe flock at all times.

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