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Sheep Update: Creep Feeding Lambs

Livestock Update, February 1999

Scott Greiner, Extension Animal Scientist, Sheep, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

Creep feeding young lambs while still nursing the ewe can provide valuable supplemental weight gain. This added weight gain has the most economic value for lambs managed in an intensive, early weaning production system where lambs will be maintained in a dry-lot. Conversely, for lambs that will be developed on pasture throughout the spring and summer, creep feeding would be of less value due to the relative expense of this early weight gain. Creep feeding also is beneficial for flocks with a high number of multiple births, or flocks with ewes having limited milk production.

Young lambs may be started on creep feed as early as 10 days of age. Although significant amounts of feed are normally not consumed until 3 to 4 weeks of age, providing access to creep feed at an early age allows lambs to develop a habit of eating dry feed, and helps stimulate rumen development. For creep feeding to be economical, lambs must consume enough feed to increase performance. Lambs should eat a minimum of .5 pounds of creep feed per head per day from 20 days of age to weaning.

Intake of creep feed is influenced by the design of the creep area as well as the feed provided. The creep area should be kept dry and well bedded. Place the creep in a high-traffic area where lambs will naturally find their way into it. The creep area should be large enough that the majority of the lambs may be in it at any one time. Observation of the traffic patterns of the ewes and lambs will help identify an ideal location. A light in the creep area will help attract lambs into the creep. Creep gates should provide spaces between 8 to 12 inches to allow lambs in but keep ewes out. Creep gates with rollers allow larger lambs through a smaller space. A small used tire can also be used as a creep gate.

The creep ration need not be expensive or complex. Of critical importance is that the feed be kept fresh and dry. Replace the feed in the creep daily. Old creep feed may be given to the ewe flock. Utilize covered feeders that minimize contamination from lambs standing or playing in the feeder. Young lambs are very sensitive to what they eat, and will not consume stale or contaminated feed.

The principle behind creep feeding is to stimulate lambs to eat and therefore promote weight gain. Therefore, highly palatable feeds must be provided. At a young age, lambs prefer feeds that are finely ground and have a small particle size. Feedstuffs high in palatability for young lambs include soybean meal, ground corn, and alfalfa hay. These feeds should be replaced daily to keep fresh. A simple mixture of 80-85% ground or cracked corn and 15-20% soybean meal, with free choice high quality alfalfa hay is a very palatable early creep ration. The feed being fed to the ewes may also be included free choice in the creep feeder. Early in the creep feeding period, stimulating intake is of primary concern. These diets should be formulated to contain 20% crude protein.

As the lambs get to 4 to 6 weeks of age and older, coarser feeds become more palatable. Providing feeds early will enhance the lambs' acceptance to these coarser feeds. As the lamb gets older, intakes and growth rates should increase. Additionally, the proportion of the gain that is derived from dry feed vs. milk increases. During this time, lambs may be gradually switched to a complete pelleted ration or a ration containing cracked corn and supplement. Over time, the ration should be changed to represent what will be fed once the lamb is weaned. Complete feeds are available commercially, which can be convenient yet expensive. Pelleted supplements to be mixed with cracked corn are generally cheaper, and are also widely available. At weaning, protein requirements of lambs drop to 15-16%. An advantage of the complete feeds and protein supplements is that they are fortified with antibiotics, vitamins, and minerals which are important for lamb health and performance. Lambs should be vaccinated with Clostridium Perfringens C & D to prevent overeating disease prior to weaning at 6 to 8 weeks of age.

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