Why Are The Lambs Eating Turnips?

Customer Question: What do your sheep eat? (Part 2: Late summer diet)

As summer turns to fall the growth of warm season grasses slows, seed heads develop and the previous tender stems become tough. A field may look full of grass but the nutrient content is often very low as in the photograph below. Whereas, the lambs in the photograph to the right have a field of brassicas planted especially for them. As the late summer nights become cool the sugars increase in the turnip bulbs providing a naturally, high carbohydrate diet. The leaves are high in protein. The combination is a great diet for these weaned, late summer lambs.

Lambs in the turnips
Lambs in the turnips

Sheep and lambs are talented at biting off the most nutrient rich part of the plant. They will first remove just the leaves avoiding the tough stem. Mature, dry ewes (no longer lactating) will generally do well on low quality, tough grasses but lambs will struggle. Sheep only have teeth on their bottom jaw. Their flat, top palate along with their bottom teeth clips the softer forages. If examined, lambs on tough grasses will often have blisters on their tender palate. When native grasses mature and go to seed the lambs will pick off the most nutritious parts of the plants but it will take many bites to fill their rumens, the protein and carbohydrates in their diet will be low and growth will slow. Life stage of sheep is important to consider when evaluating the pasture for grazing. Mature grasses (such as in the above photograph) are fine for adult, dry sheep. It is not good enough for growing lambs.

Lambs harvesting their own turnips
Lambs harvesting their own turnips. Lambs will first focus on the greens while taking a few bites out of the bulbs (right area of photograph). As they develop a taste for the turnip bulbs they will show them more preference and even dig up bulbs that have not emerged from the ground.

There are many methods of supplementing lamb diets to replace milk protein after weaning. We prefer to plant forages and brassicas that do great in fall weather and become sweeter with the dropping temperature.


Llama guardians overlook field
Llama guardians overlook field as they watch for intruders. Their eye is on me and the movement of Mist the border collie.

Earlier this morning the llamas constant gaze into a nearby field alerted us to a group of lambs that had strayed from the group and were accidentally locked out of their field. The llamas seemed determined that we follow their gaze as they stood as motionless as statures staring in unison towards a far field. Finally we too could spot the specks of white (the group of lambs in the photograph of the grass pasture). Mist was delighted to gather and return them to their group. The llamas only then settled back to grazing.

Mist, border collie, attentive to the lambs
Mist, the border collie attentive to the lambs.

Why wean lambs at all? We will discuss this in more detail in a later post. The most important reason is because the ewes lactation peaks at around 30 days (this varies with genetics). By 45-60 days the lambs are receiving minimal milk protein. This is still important for the lambs and the ewes provide comfort and grazing training during these last weeks. After 60 days the lambs are generally 50-80 lbs (depending on milk supply, genetics and number of siblings on the udder). The udder is vulnerable to damage by the fully erupted baby teeth and rough behavior of older lambs. 80 lb twins will often hit the ewe’s udder full force, knocking the ewe into the air. The ewe is naturally weaning at this time but needs some management help to protect their udders and to increase their body fat levels before onset of winter.

What do our sheep eat in early summer? Interested in the diet of goats in during summer?