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Don’t put away calf creep feeders just yet

A cool spring coupled with good rains throughout the summer grazing season has kept most pastures across Western Canada lush and many cows milking so well, their calves haven’t been eating much creep feed. But as most pastures rapidly mature by September, autumn-creep can help increase pre-wean weight gains on calves.

At a time when leaves turn colour, the most promising calves are growing at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, they cannot meet their total energy and protein requirements simply by nursing their mothers. Cow milk production, which supplies less than 50 per cent of the calves’ requirement for energy and protein, is slowing. Moreover, calves cannot supplement lower milk consumption with forage nutrients, because mature grasses are lying down significant amounts of low-digestible forage fibre. That translates into lower amounts of energy and decreased protein content.


A practical feed option to fill this nutritional shortfall is for calves to consume a complementary amount of creep feed in the next couple of months ahead of weaning. Most university creep feed studies have demonstrated that pre-weaned calves on a modest plane of mature pasture nutrition, nominal cow milk intake, and supplemental creep feed can potentially maintain a daily body weight gain of about 1.8 to 2.5 lb./head/day. As much as 30 to 60 lbs. of this gain can be traced back to creep feeding.

Commercial creep feeds are balanced for 12 to 18 per cent protein and dietary energy of 65 to 75 per cent TDN (total digestible nutrients). Their formulations often contains high-energy grains (such as corn and/or barley), added modest-energy feed byproducts (such as wheat- middlings and/or corn distillers’ grains), and concentrated feed proteins such as soybean or canola meal. A mineral-vitamin pack as well as a growth promotant such as monensin sodium is also added to the final mix.

Most producers know creep feed intake by even hungry calves can remain relatively low (zero to two lb./head/day) when pasture conditions are still lush and cows are milking. Creep feed consumption begins to change once these pastures start to mature — less grass and less milk. Creep feed intakes rise rapidly (six to eight lb./head/day) and then levels off. Creep feeding calves grazing higher-quality pastures have a lower feed efficiency of nine to 11 lbs. per lb. of gain compared to a creep feed efficiency of five to seven lbs. of feed per lb. of gain when calves are out on mature fall pastures.

The sight of healthy spring calves milling around half-full feeders in midsummer and still gaining acceptable weights, can lead some producers to save on feed costs and forgo creep feeding until next years’ calf crop. However, they may be quitting too soon.


The following table illustrates the financial proposition of an autumn creep feeding program for calves weaned prior to the arrival of the first snowflakes.

In this example, let’s say we are raising a group of spring calves and nursing cows (producing less than 10 lbs. of milk, daily) and both cows and calves are grazing medium-quality pastures. The parameters of this creep feeding program: (1) 45-day program (Sept 1- Oct. 14), (2) creep ration @ $325/mt (3) creep feed consumption @ 6.0 lb./head/day, (4) feed efficiency = 6.50, (5) calves weaned at 600 lbs. and sold @ $1.50/lb. and (6) No weight-market discount. (Optional).

In this example, there was a nearly $23 positive return per head due to autumn creep feeding. Individual financial results will vary due to the actual cost of purchased creep feed, and final calf prices, and other non-financial factors.

And of course, the success of any autumn creep-feeding program really depends upon the health status, actual bodyweight and growth potential of spring calves. Creep diets don’t even have to be fancy to lead to greater revenue and profits from calves. †

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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