Considerations Before Creep Feeding Beef Calves


   Calving is well underway and pastures are definitely greening up. The oscillating temperatures have been a nightmare, but we will actually reach normal temperatures soon. I have seen calves already eating grass. While corn is cheap now, many may want push those calves to gain weight by creep feeding.
   Creep feeding is the practice of providing supplemental feed to nursing calves, usually with the use of a creep gate large enough for calves to enter the feeding area, but too small to allow cows to pass. A lactating beef cow can supply only 50 percent of the nutrients a 3-4 month old calf needs to maximize growth. Depending on availability and quality, forage may not be able to supply the other 50 percent of nutrients the calf needs. Nutrient deficiency is more pronounced when calves graze late summer or drought stricken pastures, and during the winter when no grazing is available. The remaining nutrients will need to be supplied from other sources if the calf is to realize its genetic potential for growth. 
   Creep feeding can be implemented in various forms or systems regardless of method chosen. The kind of creep feed varies widely from grain-based “energy creeps” to limit-fed high protein creeps to “green creeps,” which are high quality pastures grown solely for grazing by nursing calves. Each system generally produces increased growth, which may or may not be profitable. Thus before implementing a creep feeding program, analyze the program based on estimates of expected increases in performance and income compared to the costs of these improvements. 
   The first factor to consider is the cost of the added gain. It does not make sense to spend more than the market price to produce additional weight gain. The conversion of feed to gain is highly variable - 3 to 12 pounds of feed for each pound of gain above non-creep-fed calves. In a creep grazing system the increase in calf weights would have to be evaluated against the cost per acre of creep forage, the number of calves carried per acre and the amount of extra weight produced per acre of creep grazing. Producers generally assume that creep feeding is more valuable when calf prices are high. However, the higher the calf prices, the greater the discounts as calves increase in weight.
   The relationship between feed conversion and feed cost determines the cost of gain. Cost of gain is calculated by dividing total feed costs per calf by added gain per calf. For this example, use a conversion of 9 pounds of feed per pound of added gain when determining how much can be paid for creep feed with feed costs per pound of gain ranging from $0.50 to $0.60 to make creep feeding profitable. If feed conversion is 9 pounds of feed per pound of added gain, a feed price of $120 per ton would equal $0.54 per pound of added gain, which is about breakeven. Therefore, if creep costs more than $120 per ton, it may not be profitable.
   The response to creep feeding will be less when abundant high quality forage is available until weaning. Growth rates will be less restricted in non-creep-fed calves when high quality forage is substituted for grain in creep-fed calves. Research has shown that a more fibrous creep feed such as soybean hulls will not decrease forage intake and forage digestion as much as a high starch feed such as corn.  Research has shown that daily intake of creep feed can affect feed efficiency. Protein-based creep feeds are often fed in limited amounts by including salt in the feed. Reported feed efficiencies (feed/gain) have been lower when using these supplements compared to high energy, low protein grains and by-product feeds.
   Creep feeding has been most effective in drought situations or whenever quantity or quality of pastures does not meet the growth requirements of the calf. During a drought, calf gains are limited by poor quality forages and a lack of forage availability.
   Creep feeding can mask the poor milking performance of cows. Calves of poor milking cows may consume more feed to make up for receiving less milk from the cow. If culling and selection are based on weaning weight, weigh calves prior to the creep feeding period to obtain an estimate of the cow’s performance.
   Another point to consider is whether or not the calves will be marketed following a stockering program. If calves are heavily fed and fat at weaning, creep feeding could decrease performance during the stockering period. In this situation, use a creep grazing or limited protein supplement. This should decrease creep feeding gains but allow for normal growth rates in case of a drought or poor forage quality.
   In most situations, creep feeding future replacement heifers is not recommended. Research shows that high-energy supplementation and subsequent high daily gains of heifers, prior to weaning, decrease mammary development and subsequent milk production. Creep feeding will reduce milk production by approximately 25 percent. Milk production should not decrease unless heifers are gaining at least 2 pounds per day. Creep feeding heifer calves can decrease milk production in their first lactation and result in a lower weaning weight of their calves.
   Replacement heifers generally need to gain only 1 to 1.5 pounds per day from weaning to breeding to achieve 65 percent of mature weight at breeding. At such low growth rates, much of the added weight gained from creep feeding will be lost. Separate potential replacement heifers from the calves that are creep-fed. Creep feeding heifers has been shown to decrease the age at puberty. If weaning weights are severely restricted by poor forage, then creep feeding can allow heifers to obtain normal growth and reach puberty to calve at 2 years of age.
   Creep feeding is best used when cows are poor milking, when pasture quality and quantity will not support optimal gains, and when ownership of calves will be retained through slaughter. A variety of options (unlimited grain, salt-limited grains and forage) are available to improve the growth rates of nursing calves. ∆
   DR. TERESA L. STECKLER: Extension Specialist, Animal Systems/Beef, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, University of Illinois

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