Do Sheep Really Need Hay?

Brady Campbell, Program Coordinator, OSU Sheep Team
Dr. Ale Relling, Assistant Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University
Clif Little
, OSU Extension Educator, Guernsey County

This question has been commonplace this year, especially with the inability of many producers to make hay at a reasonable time. However, this isn’t to say that there isn’t hay to be purchased, because there is, but rather that hay of acceptable quality at a reasonable price is nearly non-existent.

With this in mind, we challenge you to think about how generations before us fed low quality hay. It was simple right? Feed more of the lower quality material and allow the animals to choose which parts of the bale are the best. Then once they have eaten what they want, pitch the rest of it on the ground for bedding. This may be true, but what happens when we aren’t feeding enough of the ‘good stuff’? Do our sheep have a forage test to know what is good and what is bad? Do the shy eaters get enough of the higher quality material or are they forced to eat the lower quality bits to fulfill their daily feed intake, which may not meet their daily nutritional requirements?

So comes the question, is there a consistent alternative fiber source that can be fed to sheep that could be used to decrease or eliminate the need for hay which has shown to be highly variable and sometimes too expensive? Thankfully due to some preliminary research conducted at the Eastern Agricultural Research Station (EARS) in Belle Valley, Ohio we may be able to answer this question as researchers investigated the effect of replacing hay with an alternative fiber source; soyhulls.

To conduct the experiment, 60 wethers were hosed in 12 pens, with 5 wethers per pen, and were assigned to either one of two diets. The diet consisted of an energy, protein, mineral, and vitamin concentrate pellet fed at 76% and second-cut grass hay fed at 24% to the total diet (Table 1). The second diet was similar, but instead of using hay, soybean hulls pellets were used as a fiber source (Table 1). The average beginning body weight was 65 lbs., with all lambs being fed for 89 days. To guarantee that both groups had the same ratio of concentrate to forage, the hay was individually weighed every day and fed based on the previous days feed intake.

After reviewing the animal performance parameters, there were no differences in lamb final body weight, average daily gain, or gain to feed ratio. In addition, although not significantly different, lambs offered soyhulls tended to have a greater dry matter intake when compared to those lambs that were offered hay (3.50 lbs. vs. 3.39 lbs.).

So, what do these results tell us? These results demonstrate that there are no differences in animal performance when comparing the fiber sources of hay to soyhulls. However, we did note that there was a tendency for lambs that consumed soyhulls to have a greater dry matter intake when compared lambs consuming hay. Therefore, those lambs that were offered soyhulls required more feed (0.1 lbs./head/day) on a daily basis. You may be thinking that this does not seem like much, but when feeding let’s say 100 head per day, that adds up to 10 extra pounds of feed needed per day. Again, not a large increase of feed needed, but an increase none the less. So, how can we convince you that it may be more economical to feed soyhulls as opposed to hay? For that, let’s look at the economic value of these fiber sources.

The hay used in this feeding trial was described as second-cut grass hay and had a crude protein (CP) level of 7.30% and total digestible nutrient (TDN) value of 62%. Hay of this quality, according to market values in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the week of October 21, 2019, would be roughly valued at $375.00 per ton or $0.19 per pound. Do note that hay prices may vary based upon location. As for soyhulls, the CP level of this fiber source is estimated at 13% with a TDN value of 77%, according to the 2007 Small Ruminant NRCS. In the current market, soyhulls are valued at $145.00 per ton or $0.07 per pound. Using this information alone, in today’s market hay is valued at almost three times the amount of soyhulls with nearly half the amount of available protein. If we were looking at these numbers alone, what fiber source would you choose?

Furthermore, it should be discussed how the hay was offered to the lambs. If you refer back to the materials and methods section, you will note that the hay was individually weighed and placed into feeders. Feeding in this manner resulted in virtually no to very little hay waste. Now, how does this compare to what we would do on farm? Regardless of the size and shape of the hay bale, we must factor hay loss. Even using the best hay feeders on the market today, according to an Extension note provided by the University of Missouri, feeding cattle a one-day hay supply in the form of small square bales in a rack resulted in approximately a 4% loss whereas this figure increased to nearly 5% when feeding large round or square bales in a rack. These percentages may seem small, but the hay that we previously discussed that you may purchase and feed this winter is now valued at $394 per ton accounting for a 5% feeding loss.

From economics standpoint, the results are clear. Feeding soyhulls as a fiber source is cheaper when compared to feeding hay. However, some of you may be thinking, what about the effect of fiber? You know, scratch factor. Can we replace all of our hay with soyhulls regardless of what sheep we are feeding? Based on our experience, soyhulls provide enough fiber to maintain rumen health in a lamb finishing system. It also has the advantage to be mixed with the full diet; therefore, we see a reduction in sorting where lambs do not just eat the concentrate (energy) or fiber portions of the diet as what would occur when hay is supplemented.

Overall, there is an obvious economic advantage to feed soyhulls as compared to hay this year. Based on our experience, feeding soyhulls is a good alternative to hay when feeding growing and finishing lambs. However, further testing is needed to determine whether this same feeding protocol could be used in a mature ewe ration year-round. Ultimately, the decision on which fiber source will be used depends upon the cost of each feedstuff as well as the type of and age of sheep being fed.


Table 1: Diet composition
% in dry matter basis
Soyhulls based diet Hay based diet
Ground corn 62.6 62.6
Soybean meal 11.1 11.1
Soyhulls 24.1
Grass Hay 24.1
Vitamin-mineral supplement 2.3 2.3
Nutrient composition
Crude Protein 14.85 14.19
NDF 22.11 20.72
Ca 0.55 0.47
P 0.28 0.31