Bridging the nutrient gap between mothers’ milk and pastures has always been the traditional purpose for creep feeding spring calves on many commercial cow-calf operations. Some producers put creep feeders out during the late summer when pasture is mature and milk of the average cow can only meet 50 per cent of her growing calf’s requirements. Other people put their creep feeders out as soon as the snow disappears in order to improve calf growth throughout the summer.
Positive economics in both cases of creep feeding usually plays a pivotal role in creep feeding calves at all, since producers can directly profit from the sole practice of creep feeding as well as achieve heavier saleable weaning weights in the fall. However, the usual profit potential may not pencil out in 2021. If we don’t get some timely rains this spring, dried-out pastures should make any creep feeding more of a nutritional necessity.
As I have done in the last 10 years, I have calculated the profitability of creep feeding calves for 2021. It targets an average of 60 pounds of extra weaning-weight gain in a 100-day creep feeding program, and I compare it to that of a non-crept animal. As the accompanying table illustrates, high grain prices coupled with this fall’s predicted feeder prices have made creep feeding calves this coming season appear unprofitable.
For example, a 14 per cent creep grain pellet that cost $375/tonne last year now costs $470 due to feed commodities that simply cost more, such as $6/bushel barley and $450/tonne canola meal. If I had used the creep pellet price from 2020, the net cost of creep feeding yields about a nominal $10 profit per calf, compared to using today’s price, which shows about a $9 loss per animal.
This is not the only reason for 2021 calf creep unprofitability. A wider weight-gradient discount in today’s feeder market severely discounts cattle as they gain more weight. In this particular case, the price per hundredweight discount from 500- to 600-pound feeder cattle was discounted $14 cwt (USF), which results in a pro-rated 60-lb. rate of about $8.40 cwt. If this final pro-rated discount was closer to those of other years or $5 cwt, about a $20 per calf profit could possibly be realized.
Furthermore, in the last 10 years (not including 2021, yet including 2013, the lowest dollar return per calf due to low autumn feeder prices and high grain prices), I made the correct general assumption that milk production and pasture quality were at least good enough to achieve a baseline/non-creep weaning weight of 540 lbs. Creep feed simply added an extra 60 lbs. by autumn. However, now I suspect that some current drought-stricken pastures will not be able to support milk production of 10-20 litres per brood cow and in turn, may not support good non-creep growth as well as significant calf nutrition drawn from grazing grass.
But on the positive side
There is still good news. Spring calves might be forced to turn to the creep feeders for supplementary nutrition in lieu of past years’ good milk production and pastures. But at least the conversion of creep feed to gain is significantly better (re: 6.0-7.0: 1) than that of average milk production and pasture quality (re: 8.0-10: 1). If these creep feed conversions were similar, we might be looking at a $50 loss versus a less than $10 discount in 2021.
As a beef nutritionist, I have put together several well-balanced creep feeds to achieve such efficient gains on spring calves. My go-to formulas use a mineral-vitamin pack, some barley, wheat middlings, corn DDGS, soybean meal and a coccidiostat. I do this work in conjunction with local feed mills and often get a commercial pellet made, which has a five to six per cent feed consumption advantage over homemade chop when fed to calves.
It just so happens that a friend runs a 300-head cow-calf operation and thinks along similar lines as me. He has already put out his creep feeders on pasture and filled them with a nutritious concoction as described above. That’s because he believes that efficient gains on his calves will be due more to creep feed if 2021 turns out to be a dry year, thus supplying essential nutrients that would otherwise not be available.
On the other hand, he is also hoping there is rain in the forecast.