Question: Why is creep feed important for lambs?
In any sheep production business, the farmer’s aim is to raise healthy lambs able to achieve their full genetic growth potential.
Although newborn lambs receive nourishment from ewe’s milk and grazing, creep feeding supplies extra nutrition and contributes to sheep production profitability.
- At birth, the lamb’s rumen isn’t active and it cannot digest any fibre.
- Just after birth, it can absorb antibodies from the ewe through colostrum.
- After 5 days, the lamb will start nibbling feed.
- If the lamb cannot receive colostrum from the ewe, either because of disease or death, farmers could use colostrum from a cow.
- It’s advisable for farmers to obtain colostrum from an animal that’s already on the farm, as the antibodies will be specific for that environment.
- Lambs should be started on creep feed when they are 1 to 2 weeks old.
- They may not eat much feed until they are 3 to 4 weeks old, but making creep feed available early in the lamb’s life will get it into the habit of eating dry feed.
Creep feed plays an important role in rumen development. At birth, the parts of the lamb’s rumen aren’t yet fully functional, and their cud-chewing behaviour hasn’t developed either. The lamb’s rumen and reticulum are usually functional when the lamb is 50 to 60 days old.
As the lamb’s rumen is still developing, farmers have to ensure that lambs receive highly digestible, palatable feed. The creep ration should consist of feed that’s cracked, rolled, ground or pelleted.
There are various reasons why farmers should provide creep feed to suckling lambs.
Ewes sometimes don’t produce enough milk for the lamb’s needs:
- Milk production usually peaks at between 3 and 4 weeks of lactation.
- By the time lambs are 4 to 6 weeks old, they may be getting as much as 50% of their nutrient intake from sources other than their mother’s milk.
Farmers should keep an eye on lamb behaviour to ensure they are receiving enough food: “Look at the lamb’s tail while it is drinking. If it doesn’t wag around, the lamb isn’t receiving enough milk. If this happens, give the lamb additional milk between feedings. The lamb’s general condition – such as weight gain and coat – is also an indication of sufficient feeding.”
Creep feed can also be provided if pasture is not of a good quality, or if there isn’t enough.
Dr. Jasper Coetzee, formerly of Voermol, says in an article that creep feed makes it possible to wean lambs as early as at 72 days old, with a minimum mass of 25 kg. If lambs are weaned at 100 days of age, creep feed will ensure that their weaning mass is at least 45%, but preferably 50%, of their adult mass.
Lambs on creep feed may be 10% to 20% heavier at weaning and marketed up to 50 days earlier, while a large percentage of lambs may be marketed directly from the ewes at 3 to 4 months of age.
Muscle cells and muscle growth are accelerated in lambs that receive creep feed. The result is an increased carcass value of slaughter lambs and the eventual adult size of young rams and ewes. In the case of the latter, it results in improved lifetime production and reproduction.
Creep feed also prevents weaning shock in lambs intended for the feedlot. If lambs are trained in creep feeding and subjected to good mothering qualities, their time in the feedlot can be reduced, because the average intake weight will be higher and the initial growth rate will be faster. Their stress levels when weaned are much lower and the risk of disease is also lower.
Many farmers request a formula for a balanced creep feeding mixture, but it isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” ration. Differences in nutritional values coupled with very specific feeds in different areas all over the world, mean you would do well to consult your local nutrition specialists before buying a ration.
- Farmers shouldn’t neglect treatment for parasites, particularly when lambs enter the transition phase from milk to feed. This is when they are susceptible to parasites.
- As soon as lambs change their feeding habits, they are at risk of diseases such as pulpy kidney and Rift Valley fever.
- Be careful not to overdose, or underdose.
- It’s very important that farmers consult vets for help regarding deworming and vaccination programmes suitable to their specific area.
Lambs should have access to additional feed through an opening in a fence or gate large enough to allow them to enter, but that is too small for ewes.
- These openings are often referred to as a “creep”.
- The creep gates should have multiple openings so the lambs don’t think they’re trapped.
- The creep gate is central to a successful creep feeding system.
- It needs openings large enough to allow access for lambs up to 22 kg live weight.
- Farmers usually construct their own creep feeding pens, using steel.
- Install an adjustable bar above the creep gate openings.
- The bar can be adjusted downwards if the farmer wants smaller lambs only to enter.
- Adjust it upwards to allow larger lambs to enter.
- The creep feeding pen should be located in an area where lambs will find their way to it. Water is a critical component of a lamb’s diet and the creep pen should be close to a water source.
- Farmers should place water in a water trough outside the creep feeding pen.
- The creep area should be hygienic at all times.
- The feed should be fresh and dry and should never run out.
Ruminants: Sheep belong to the ruminant classification of animals. Ruminants are characterised by their four stomachs and cud-chewing behaviour. The rumen occupies a large part of the abdominal cavity of the ruminant. It is a large storage space for food that’s quickly consumed, then later regurgitated, re-chewed, and re-swallowed (cud chewing or rumination). This occurs primarily when the animal is resting and not eating. Healthy, mature sheep will chew the cud for several hours each day.
Colostrum: Also known as first milk, it is a form of milk produced by the mammary glands of mammals in late pregnancy. Colostrum contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease. It’s higher in fat and protein than ordinary milk.
- This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.