Feeding grain to sheep during a dry season

Key points

  • During prolonged drought, most producers feed sheep for survival rather than adopt the more expensive program of feeding for production.
  • The fodder chosen should be fairly priced, readily available, and easy to handle and store.
  • This webpage describes how to introduce sheep to full hand feeding on grain rations when there is little paddock feed available.

Situating stock for best results

It is generally more economical to decrease stock numbers before intensive feeding becomes necessary. If a nucleus of sheep is to be maintained on a drought property, attention should be given to the long-term sustainability of the land on which they are kept.

Maintaining stock by extra feeding can lead to severe degradation of the land concerned. Therefore, it is recommended that sheep on a drought ration should be fully confined to a small paddock (a few hectares) or yards to minimise the area affected.

Generally these would be areas such as laneways or holding paddocks that are usually already degraded to some degree. Note also that sheep on full hand-feeding will continue to forage in vain out in large paddocks and this can waste much of the energy being provided by the ration.

Feeding grain

Grain is easier to handle and less bulky to store than hay. Wheat, barley, sorghum, maize, oats and sheep nuts are commonly available and often used for feeding sheep. The weekly grain requirements to maintain sheep during drought are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Weekly grain requirements for full hand feeding of sheep
Class Wheat, barley, sorghum, maize (kg) Oats, sheep nuts
Weaners 1.8 2.2
Adult (dry) 2.4 3.0
Within 6 weeks of lambing 3.0 3.8
Lactating 4.2 5.1

There is no advantage in crushing the grain for sheep.

Maize can be fed out on the ground but all other grains should be fed in troughs.

Allow one metre of trough space for every six sheep.

If you are full hand feeding, feed in small areas where water and shade are available. Stock at the rate of 900 to 1000 sheep per ha, depending on their size.

When sheep are not eating any dry paddock feed, they should be 'conditioned' to grain-feeding to avoid digestive upsets. Start by feeding a small amount of grain mixed with chaff, hay or other roughage for 4-7 days and increase the amount of grain gradually over similar periods until sheep are receiving a full grain ration.

The frequency of feeds should also be lessened gradually. During the first and second periods sheep should be fed daily, then intermittent feeding should be introduced. By the 5th or 6th period, the feed should be put out once every 3-4 days. An example of conditioning sheep is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: An example of conditioning adult, dry, non-pregnant sheep
Amount per 1000 sheep per week (tonne)
(each 4-7 days)
% grain
% roughage
Grain Roughage Total
1 40 60 1.4 2.1 3.5
2 50 50 1.6 1.6
3 60 40 1.8 1.2 3.0
4 70 30 1.9 0.8 2.7
5 80 21 2.2 0.2 2.7
6 90 10 2.3 0.2 2.5
7 100 0 2.4 0.0 2.4

Grain poisoning

Take care introducing grain to sheep. Engorgement can cause grain poisoning (ie. lactic acidosis). Symptoms are loss of appetite, lameness and scouring. Affected sheep can be drenched with 15 g baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in 600 ml water. Repeat if necessary.

If you notice grain poisoning, drop the grain ration back to the previous level for a few days.

Avoid sudden changes of diet, which can be deadly to sheep. When changing grain type or source, introduce on a basis of 25:75, 50:50, 75:25 over three feeds.

Losses can occur when sheep are given high protein feeds after a period of fasting or after moving from dry pastures to rapidly growing crops.

Other supplements


Grains are deficient in calcium, so mix 1 to 1.5 per cent finely ground limestone into the full grain ration.


Vitamin A may be needed when:
  • a full grain ration is fed for more than one year
  • rams are to be joined after 2-6 months with no access to any green feed
  • lambs are weaned from drought affected mothers with depleted liver vitamin A reserves.

Vitamin A is present in green feed as carotene and is converted to vitamin A inside the sheep. Adult sheep normally carry enough vitamin A in their liver so should not need supplementation.


Higher stocking rates increase the burden of both internal and external parasites. Make sure that sheep are free from both before the feeding program begins.

Further information

Last updated 19 October 2012