By Kirsten Williams, senior beef and sheep consultant, SAC Consulting

With some farmers having to contend with strong winds, frosty mornings and prolonged snow cover, conditions have not been favourable for grass growth, and with lamb prices booming, it is a year to evaluate if creep feeding would be economical for your scenario.

When grass is limited, it impacts the ewe’s milk yield, which in turn impacts lamb performance when they are most efficient at converting milk to kg of live weight. Young lambs have a very good feed conversion rate of 4:1 prior to weaning at 12 weeks, which decreases to 12:1 as the lamb ages. A ewe reaches her peak milk yield at four weeks post lambing, and by six weeks post lambing the lamb’s diet is typically made up of 50/50 milk and grass.

This means that while the ewe’s nutritional demand is high for producing a high level of milk, she is also competing with her lambs for grass. Offering the lambs creep feed can take some of this grazing pressure off where required, allowing the ewe to regain condition. Creep feed is not as economical as grass, but in the situation of limited grass early in the spring, it can ease the pressure while ensuring good growth rates to ensure lambs are performing to enter the market place prior to the usual summer seasonal over supply.

In addition to this, with lambs being marketed earlier, it is reducing the stocking density on the holding earlier, allowing for additional silage to be cut to rebuild stocks for the winter or allow a bank of forage for the breeding flock, aiding the condition of the ewes, benefitting conception rates and survivability through the winter.

The benefits of creep feeding are very clear to see from a performance point of view when grass is limited (<4cm). When working out the economic cost of this it does show to be cost negative against a grass-only option, but what does poor ewe condition and limited late season grass availability cost your business?

March lambing April lambing

Grass Only Grass and Creep Grass Only Grass and Creep

Lamb growth (g/day) 250 350 250 350

Days to slaughter 142 101 142 101

Slaughter date Early Aug Late June Early Sept Late July

3 year ave. price £81.56 £89.71 £79.55 £82.15

Creep Cost/Lamb - £8.52 - £8.52

Cost benefit - (-)£0.38 - (-)£5.92

*based on creep feed at £280/tonne, with lambs intake of 300g/day.

The example above shows the performance of lambs at grass only of 250g/day, if grass is limited and growth is 200g/day then the grass-only lambs will be on the holding for an additional month (35 days), further depleting late season grass availability.

Every farm is different, but if grass growth is slow this year, creep feeding offers a contingency to ease the pressure on both the ewe and lamb until grass is sufficient (>4cm). A mixed approach may work best for some, where the creep is offered to ewes carrying multiples or ewe hoggs rearing lambs to maximise the benefits.