It’s always heartwarming to see the twitch of a spring calf’s tail as it nurses its mum. As this calf approaches three months of age, the brood cow’s milk production decreases, only supplying about half of the calf’s nutrient requirements. The rest must be delivered by sprouting pastures. But that could spell trouble to calf growth when drought hits or grasses naturally mature. This is where a good calf creep-feeding program benefits by providing supplemental energy, protein, minerals and vitamins in order to help calves achieve heavy saleable weaning weights.
As a beef nutritionist, I have formulated many creep rations that fill this nutritional gap for spring calves. One of my favourites is a 14 per cent protein and medium-energy feed pellet that is made up mainly of wheat middlings and some barley supplemented with high-protein concentrates such as soybean meal and corn distillers grains. Its mineral/vitamin profile also contains a complement of calcium, phosphorus and salt with essential trace minerals and vitamins A, D and E. I have formulated rolled creep feeds with a similar nutrient profile, largely utilizing steam-rolled oats in combination with a special protein pellet.
Both types of these creep feeds contain five per cent molasses to improve feed consumption by young calves. Brewer’s yeast is also added to improve forage digestibility, and monensin sodium (cocciostat) is added to prevent the devastating effects of coccidiosis.
It has been my experience that creep feed intake by three-month-old calves in midsummer is dictated significantly by pasture quality. This means calves usually come up to the creep feeders and eat a couple of pounds of creep each day for a few days and then might not come up again for half a week. It’s only toward the end of the summer when pasture grasses mature and are less nutritious that calves increase their creep consumption to an optimum seven to eight pounds per day. That continues until they are weaned in the fall.
Start early in spring
I often recommend a more aggressive creep-feeding program with feeders put out much earlier in spring. Initial consumption by spring calves starts off at one to two pounds/head/day but steadily increases throughout a normal grazing season (with timely rains, no drought) in a step-up fashion toward autumn. As a result, weaning weights of spring calves tend to be higher by 20-30 lbs. with steady feed efficiencies of six to seven lbs. of feed per lb. of gain compared to the above conventional creep-feeding program.
Regardless of the program, the final weight put on young calves is also affected by good feed management. For example, at the beginning of the pasture season, creep feeders should be filled to half-capacity in order to maintain feed freshness so more calves to come up to eat more frequently. After this break-in stage creep feeders can be filled to capacity. A typical 130-bushel metal feeder (on wheels) holds about 1-½ tons of rolled calf creep feed or two tons of feed pellets, while a 250-bushel feeder holds about four tons of rolled feed or six tons of feed pellets, depending on its shape.
Several university trials demonstrate spring calves that eat more creep feed are heavier at weaning. Yet to be profitable, the feeding cost of putting on this extra bodyweight must be less than the sale of this weight gain.
For 2019, the financial statement for putting 80 lbs. of bodyweight on large-framed calves (segregate the replacement heifers) in a 150-day creep-feeding program looks promising. Based on a $2.05/lb. fall-weaned calf price (based upon $1.50/lb. USF) and the current creep-feed prices of $0.19/lb., its feed efficiency of 6.0 and an eight-cent per cwt market discount, there is about a $23 premium/per head or 25 per cent return on investment for crept-fed calves.
There was only one year in the last decade when creep-feeding calves was not profitable. That was in 2011 when grain prices were strong relative to soft calf prices. Otherwise, creep feeding is still profitable in 2019 and is a timeless way of supplementing essential nutrients to saleable beef calves if milk and forage supplies become short.