Sheep are perhaps the most adaptable of all domestic livestock in terms of nutrition. They are efficient users of poor quality forages and can be very productive on a wide variety of feeds. Nutrients essential to them are water, energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. The balance of these five ingredients is essential to good health. Any compromise in nutrition compromises health. Fortunately, the digestive process of sheep has a tremendous capacity to assimilate forages and feeds into a usable product. No living creature can survive without water. Sheep have a high requirement for water, due to the fermentation process that occurs in the rumen, and water is essential for the breakdown of fiber. If water is limited, feed consumption will decrease, resulting in poor production. In most sheep-producing areas of the world, energy is the nutrient most likely to be limited in the diet. Inadequate energy results in poor growth, reduced reproductive ability, and increased susceptibility to disease. Energy requirements depend on the size of the animal, its growth or reproductive stage, and environmental factors such as weather, shelter, and terrain. Restricting the nutritional resources of a ewe with twins or triplets leads to a health disaster. Seventy percent of fetal development occurs in the last 40 50 days of gestation. A ewe carrying twins has almost twice the nutritional requirements during this period as a ewe carrying a single fetus. Ewes have the highest requirement for energy during the last month of pregnancy and the first month of milk production. A compromise of nutrition during this period leads to pregnancy ketosis, in which both the ewe and the fetuses can be lost. In lesser cases, undernourishment leads to dystocia, weak lambs at birth, reduced colostrum production, reduced milk yield, and a decrease in mothering instincts. Proper nourishment for the ewe during the last trimester of gestation is essential for producing a healthy lamb. Because of the many factors that affect the amount of energy a sheep requires, it is important to examine animals frequently to be sure their needs are being met. Undernourishment in wooled sheep can be deceiving. Only by feeling under the wool can the condition of the animal be determined. Protein is necessary for building body tissues such as muscle, skin, hooves, and wool. Sheep derive most of the protein by digesting the microorganisms that leave their rumen. These microorganisms themselves have a requirement for either protein or nitrogen to grow and reproduce. All sheep require vitamins A, D, and E. Once the rumen becomes functional, the microorganisms synthesize almost all vitamins required for healthy production. Vitamin A deficiency causes growth retardation, retained placenta, bone malformation, reproductive failure, and night blindness. Green plants are an excellent source of beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin D, in addition to Ca and P, is required to prevent rickets in young lambs and osteomalacia in older sheep. Vitamin E is essential for the maintenance of body cell membrane integrity. The classic symptom of vitamin E deficiency in lambs is white-muscle disease. Selenium is also part of this equation. The B vitamins are normally produced by a functional rumen. Destruction of the rumen microflora can result in loss of the B vitamins, which may result in decreased appetite and polioencephalomalacia. Minerals play a major role in skeletal and nervous system functions of the body. Sixteen minerals have been classified as essential for sheep. An excellent resource for nutritional requirements can be found in the Sheep Industry Development (SID) Sheep Production Handbook.
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