Creep feeding

Lambs grow best when they have a variety of foods at their disposal. The problem is that when they are young (as they are now), they’re in among the ewes, who are not only hungry, but ravenous! They are lactating, and this production of food from their own bodies makes them eating machines, devouring any reasonable foodstuff within reach.

The larger the variety of foods that we offer the lambs, the faster and better they will eventually be able to digest the various foods they’ll come across on our farm or on other farms across the US. Also, the better the quality of their feed, the better they will gain and the stronger and healthier they will become. By offering them only the best grain blend and the nicest, leafy alfalfa bales, the lambs get a good start in life. The problem is keeping this food for the lambs only. Somehow, the shepherd must prevent the ewes from gobbling it all down before the lambs even get there.

Our answer, which evolved over time, is the “creep gate.” It’s a panel with openings large enough for the lambs to pass through but small enough to keep the adults out. Some people make their own; we purchased our gates because the version we found has some really nice features. With our gates, we can adjust both the width of the openings and the height to better keep the ewes out. In addition, each of the bars that sets the width and height is covered by a PVC pipe that rolls as the lamb pushes through. Because of that feature, there is little friction between the lamb and the bars, making it easier for them to pass. I’ve seen lambs who are obviously too big to get in anymore launch themselves at the opening of the gate and — amazingly — get through! The side bars and the top bar all roll as the lamb gets scrunched and makes its way in!

The creep area becoming full as Rick begins to refresh the available feed yesterday morning

The creep area begins to fill up as Rick refreshes the feed yesterday morning.

The creep gates in our barn are set into the panel wall that separates the creep area (meant for only lambs) from the main area where the adult ewes hang out and eat. Since the flock has had access to the pasture, we’ve reallocated space in the barn, giving the lambs a much larger creep area and the ewes a much smaller lounging space. Because the ewes can handle the weather outside, they don’t really need to be in the barn, but I’d like the lambs to come in out of the cold rain and hail for another few weeks, if possible. As a result, we’ve made the creep area big and roomy with all of the comforts that young lambs could want: troughs of sweetened grain, hanging feeders and tubs filled with the leafiest alfalfa, a heat lamp for light and warmth, and a straw bale for climbing and playing. This year we’ve even added some free-standing walls that we built from panels. Not only do those walls hold the troughs and feeders, but they’re also very convenient as obstacles to run around when the lambs get charged up!

The lambs know exactly where the best stuff is! As I fill their mothers’ feeders with hay, the lambs begin to file into the creep area. They know that even though there are only leftovers from the day before, in only minutes the fresh stuff will begin to appear. By the time I start to replenish the feed in the creep area, the space is crowded with lambs — almost shoulder to shoulder and head to tail. It allows me a good look at the year’s lambs, seeing who catches my eye (either good or bad), who may be ill or injured, and which lambs need their coats changed for a larger size.

Okay, the truth: I also like having all of the lambs in the creep area because they are a lot of fun to watch. Once I have refreshed the creep feed, my chores in the barn are nearly done, and there is nothing more fun than looking out over this year’s lambs and watching them interact with each other and their world. They jump and run. They play at head-butting each other. They kick up their heels and gambol in joy over their good fortune: lots of friends and lots of food! What could be better? Not much — except perhaps watching sixty-plus lambs thinking the very same thing. It has become the highlight of my day!

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  • Beth says:

    Great blog, always informative!

    I’ve read that creep feed should be fed free choice. How much do you feed yours?

    • Dee says:

      We do feed creep feed our lambs free-choice, at least at first. There is always green and leafy alfalfa hay and our special grain blend available in the creep area before they are on pasture full-time. Once they begin the pasture rotation to our more distant pastures (and no longer have access to the barn), we build a small “creep house” in each pasture where we feed out their creep grain – the hay is no longer needed since the fresh grass has better nutrition than any hay we can get. After a while, I do begin to limit the amount of grain they are getting because I only fill the troughs twice each day – so in the end, they are getting about one pound per lamb (although some of this is spilled, however, so likely a bit less). Our lambs are only fed grain until, on average, two or three weeks after weaning – then they go onto pasture full-time. We do this to make sure that all of our sheep can also do well in a grass-only environment, too – and they’ve gotten the strong start that a good creep feed can provide.

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