Becky Talley
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor

(October 1, 2011)  When producers, especially in the northern states, are looking how to get more bang for their buck out of their feeding program, they may need to look no further than adding field peas to their rations. 

Feeding field peas to livestock is not a new concept, but as significant expansion in pea planting of the crop has occurred in North Dakota and surrounding northern states, the availability has also increased. Typically grown in the cooler northern climates, field pea grain is the dried edible seeds of the annual legume crop referred to as one of the pulse crops, which also includes dry bean, lentil, chickpea and fababean.

Vern Anderson, Ph.D., animal specialist with the North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center, a research center dedicated to research and educational programs to enhance the productivity, competitiveness and diversity of agriculture, has been studying field peas in cattle rations and is very positive about the crop’s performance and the feed value of peas. 

has included growing and finishing steers on a variety of pea rations and variables, harvesting the animals and measuring carcass traits and quality. According to information provided by Anderson, including peas in a feed ration increases cattle dry-matter intake, can increase animal performance and serves as a protein and energy source when fed at 15 percent to 30 percent of the ration (dry-matter basis).  Also feeding dry rolled peas at a minimum of 10 percent of the corn-based finishing diet for 75 days significantly improved the tenderness and juiciness of ribeye steaks versus cattle not fed peas. 

Field peas have several attributes that make it a valuable feedstuff for ruminants, including sheep, “Peas are a nutrient-dense grain that contains energy equal to corn with nearly three times the protein, so a small amount of peas will go a long way in providing nutrition to late-gestation ewes, ewes in early lactation or as an ingredient in lamb creepfeeds or even feeding lambs for market,” says Anderson. 

Field peas were fed to three sets of finishing lambs in a North Dakota State University (NDSU) study. Researchers found that field peas, included in up to 45 percent of the ration, resulted in peas being suitable as a replacement for corn. In this study, field peas appear to have a net energy value at least equal to corn and in one trial, outperformed corn by 14 percent. While the study did not look at feeding field peas for gestating and lactating ewes, no problems are anticipated with the use of peas in ewe diets (see reference).

Feeding Peas to Ewes
“Although there is no scientific research available on feeding peas to ewes, most producers I talk with feed peas as a supplement during late gestation and early lactation. They tend to be pleased with the ewe’s performance and it makes complete sense because ewes have the greatest requirement for protein and energy during those phases of production,” relates Reid Redden, sheep extension specialist with NDSU. He adds that he currently is working with producers to have a commercial pellet custom made for those in the region consisting of soy hulls, distillers grains and peas, but says that project is in its infancy.

Burdell Johnson, past ASI president and North Dakota sheep producer, feeds peas to both his sheep and cattle. He began growing peas as a nitrogen-fixing crop reducing the need for commercial fertilizer, and now feeds all the peas he grows to his own livestock.

“I wean my lambs on peas, finish them on peas and barley, and feed the ewes peas before and after lambing. They work very well,” he relates adding that he feeds the whole uncracked pea to the older ewes and will feed cracked peas to the lambs.

According to Anderson, the palatability of peas makes it a very attractive feed option as well, especially in his research with cattle, when it is important to get first-time feeder calves to begin eating.

“There are some subjective positive traits to peas that people tend not to focus on until they feed them. You’d be surprised at how palatable and attractive they are. Newly weaned calves will take to the pea ration readily, they eat more and gain faster,” he says of his research. “There is no reason why those principles don’t apply to sheep.”

Johnson relates that palatability is also high when feeding peas to sheep, in addition to another benefit he has witnessed.

“The animals just like the taste of them,” he says. “It even seems to have a calming effect on the sheep. Ewes during lambing in the wet weather get restless and are never satisfied. Put peas in the ration and they calm down.”

Also important in feeding rations, are that the peas also digest very slowly and thoroughly in the rumen, so pH (potential Hydrogen) is not challenged from the grain in the ration. This could be especially important when weaning and finishing lambs.

“The fact that peas degrade more slowly is a huge benefit to lamb feeders because lambs are less likely to get sick during the adaptation of lambs to a high concentrate diet. Early performance in the feedlot is highly sought after by most lamb feeders,” Redden says.

In addition to the feed value of peas, Johnson and Anderson both relate that field peas have high importance in rotation with other cereal crops.

“To me they are a great feed, and the benefits of planting crops on pea ground the following year is exceptional,” Johnson relates. 

As when feeding any other feedstuffs, the economics do need to be taken into consideration, but field peas with their dense nutrient content and possible contribution to animal performance and meat quality, all make it something to consider for producers who are able to source the crop.
“I call it a super feed,” says Johnson.

For more information on the use of field peas in livestock rations, visit

Lardy, G.P., Bauer, M.L., and Loe, E.R. (2002). Field Pea in Sheep Diets. North Dakota State University Extension Service.

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