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Pencil out creep feeding economics

There's a lot more to gain than just cost benefits

Record-high prices for feeder cattle and modest grain costs make creep feeding spring calves this year a very attractive option.

However, before putting creep feeders on pasture, each operator should pencil out the economic return of creep feeding and take note of any relevant side benefits. It’s also important to know the main objective of creep feeding as it applies to your cow herd. Creep feeding might not be for everybody, but in today’s unprecedented market should be investigated for a prospect of good revenue and profit.

For the 2014 creep-feeding season, the profitability of most situations can be evaluated by following the accompanying worksheet. It uses ballpark estimates of autumn weaned-calf prices and feed costs in order to yield creep-feeding returns.

Run the numbers

Assumptions: We are raising healthy large-framed calves that are still nursing their mums and grazing medium-quality native-grass pasture. The creep feeders are filled with a well-balanced creep feed that put on an extra 60 lbs. of bodyweight with a 7.0 lbs. of creep/gain ratio and in a 150-day creep feeding program until calves are weaning in the fall. Replacement heifers are segregated from the rest of the herd and not creep fed. Your own respective numbers can be entered in the last column to forecast your own creep feeding returns.

A worksheet to calculate creep-feeding returns is as follows:

creep-feed-economics-work-sheet

The above spreadsheet simply illustrates the objective of a true creep feeding program — the need for nutritious creep feed in order to maintain and promote overall spring calf performance, which is directly related to how much milk the nursing cows are producing and to good grass quality and availability.

For example at the start of the summer, calves that are receiving lots of milk from cows and grazing lush pastures — might only be eating only about two to three pounds of creep feed. However by mid-summer (three to four months after calving), milk production is declining such that the average beef cow might meet only about 50 per cent of her growing calf’s requirements. In addition, pasture quality is also on a decline, once lush grasses are maturing and essential nutrients such as energy and protein are not so readily available. As a result, the same calves are being drawn to the feeders and dramatically consume about eight to 10 lbs. of creep feed by summer’s end and well into autumn before weaning.

In a similar way, creep feeding calves grazing higher-quality pastures translate into lower feed efficiencies of nine to 11 lbs. per pound of gain compared to a standard creep feed efficiency of five to seven pounds of feed per pound of gain grazing the same but mature fall-time pastures. Therefore, it will be the entire season’s feed conversion of creep feed into saleable weaning weight that is the driving force behind calf creep performance and profitability.

Case-in-point: In the above spreadsheet; a feed conversion of seven yields about $43 per calf due to creep feeding, while a lower feed conversion of 10 yields only about $15 per calf.

Other benefits too

Aside from the variable dollars per calf generated by most creep feeding programs on a given year (including 2014), one should keep in mind that there are many benefits of setting up creep feeders on pasture, such as:

  •  Improves weaning weights on calves that are born during a late-calving season.
  •  Effective on cow-calf operations with a substantial amount of poor-milking cows.
  •  Supplements the nutrition of calves from thin and poorly conditioned cows.
  •  Provides more essential nutrition to exceptionally good growing calves.
  •  Develops a more uniform calf crop at weaning time.
  •  Easier to wean calves and acclimatizes them to bunk feeding.
  •  Reduces sickness of calves that often occurs after weaning.

To take advantage of all direct economic and these side benefits of creep feeding, one should feed a good commercial or homemade creep feed for the entire grazing season until weaning. This creep ration should be formulated for 14 to 18 per cent protein and have dietary energy value of 65 to 75 per cent TDN by which its list of ingredients should contain some 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 might be added to the final mix.

Unfortunately, a good-quality creep feed is not recommended for every nursing calf on the farm. Replacement heifers on good-quality pasture need a modest energy diet comprised mainly of milk and forages. Otherwise, they could get over-conditioned, which most university field trials have proven could lead to a lifetime of lower milk production as mature cows and as a result, leads to lower weaning weights of future calves.

In situations where replacement heifers cannot be separated from the main cow herd — and forage/milk production can support relatively good calf growth — the decision might be made to forgo creep feeding of the entire herd. Similar “not to creep feed” situations include: weaned calves going back on pasture as grassers; in drought areas where calves should be early-weaned; and in some rotational grazing systems.

Despite these real obstacles, the decision in 2014 to creep feed spring calves for many people still rests on the new economics of high calf/modest grain prices coupled with the main objective of supplementing calves’ nutrient requirements on pasture. In many cases, it’s a real chance to put more weaning-weight dollars in their pockets.

About the author

Columnist

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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