Creep feeding calves on pasture has become popular among Prairie cow-calf producers over the last 10 years. For most, after calving, spring calves rely on milk for the next couple of months, but by midsummer some form of supplement feed is provided for the rest of the grazing season.
From this point forward, cow milk production has slowed and supports only about half of a calf’s energy and protein needs. Likewise, calves might be actively grazing and eating lots of grass, but most plants are becoming increasingly mature and will often limit an opportunity for respectable calf growth.
A well-balanced creep feed tends to bridge this gap, between the loss of natural milk production and once-lush pastures, and allows good overall performance, especially for calves, weaned and sold in the fall. It is also recognized that large-framed calves require more dietary energy and protein compared to small- and medium-framed animals. Creep feeding can help these larger calves achieve their full-genetic potential for exceptional growth.
Regardless of frame size, most university field data agree that crept-fed nursing calves on a even a modest plane of nutrition can potentially maintain a daily bodyweight gain of about 1.8-2.5 lb/head/day by which 30-60 lbs of this gain can be traced back to creep feeding. Nonetheless, any of this final creep-related weight is dependent upon calf intake of the feed and its feed efficiency; both of which are indirectly proportional to pasture quality.
Of these two creep directives, feed efficiency of the ration (amount of feed converted into calf structure and lean bodyweight gain) appears as the main and sometimes elusive force behind overall calf performance generated during an entire summer or midsummer of creep feeding. For example, creep-feeding calves grazing fair to medium-quality pastures yields a creep-feed efficiency of about five to seven pounds of feed per pound of gain compared to creep rations provided on higher-quality tame pastures that often yields much lower creep-feed efficiency of about nine to 11 lbs per lb of gain.
Although, many producers believe the best combination for calf growth is good pasture coupled with creep feeding during the summer, such programs must be profitable. Aside from some extreme adverse circumstances (such as severe drought), where early weaning/drylot creep feeding might be a producer’s only salvation, for the rest of us, it is a good idea to pencil out the economic viability of creep feeding.
In order to determine actual creep-feeding profitability, consider the following example that uses present estimates of feed and calf prices in order to compare strict feed efficiency and creep-feeding returns on a medium native-grass pasture (re: consider the last column to calculate your own situation):
To calculate a net profit (loss) from creep feeding — that return per head due to creep feed (I col. 2) — understand it is based upon the “added average daily gain” as provided by the creep feed only, not overall or total growth including the performance due to calves grazing pasture. Such a total weaned value is calculated by adding this respective creep ADG to the approximation of growth provided by the pasture grasses.
Once your own spreadsheet is completed and the return per head due to creep feed looks favourable, then you need to choose a commercial or home-made creep ration for calves.
There are literarily hundreds of creep-feed formulations to add value of expected gain (F col. 2). A good commercial creep feed for growing spring calves should be nutritious, palatable, and made up of medium- to high-quality feed ingredients (a.k.a. no low-quality feed screenings or non-protein nitrogen such as urea). A common list of desirable ingredients(from energy to protein feed sources) include: oats, corn, barley, wheat middlings, corn and/or wheat distillers’ grains, and soybean meal).
A well-balanced creep ration should support a nutrient profile of about 65-70 per cent TDN (energy — largely dependent on pasture quality), 14-16 per cent protein (also complementary to pasture quality) and the NRC recommendations for macro-, trace minerals and vitamins for growing calves. Fed at a target of three to four pounds per head per day, this suggested creep feed should support modest gains of 0.5 – 0.75 lb per head per day, aside from the performance derived from cow’s milk and pasture. †