This past winter will probably be remembered (and forgotten) as an old fashion Canadian winter — that never wanted to quit! While flooding washed out the Red River valley in southern Manitoba, snowfall warnings were issued for parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta right into May. Soggy ground and arctic weather don’t particularly make for a good environment to feed beef cows and give them all their essential nutrients to nurse growing calves. Therefore, it’s a good year to creep feed their spring calves.
Traditionally, many producers waited a few months after calving when cows start to naturally decrease in milk production and when pasture grasses matured to start creep feeding spring calves. While this practice is still viable on many farms, one might consider putting out creep ration to this year’s calves earlier than usual for three major reasons.
First, spring pastures across the prairies have not started out in the best condition and continued adverse weather (from cool temperatures to drought) has hampered good steady forage growth that would otherwise support good milk production in the cows and growth in spring calves as they develop a viable rumen to digest nutritious grasses.
Second, many thin cows are still “playing catch up” because they came out of this past winter in poor body condition. Subsequently, if this weight is not replaced by the upcoming breeding season, poor pregnancy rates are likely to follow. These two reasons alone justify creep feeding as a sound practice to provide supplemental feed to calves in order to meet all their nutrient requirements and yield decent weaning weights by fall-time.
The last reason to creep feed calves is maximize the genetic performance in superior growing calves. Given today’s feed prices and the current market indicators, which predict modest but favorable modest fall calf prices, very conservative calculations show that creep-fed calves could generate a significant profit!
To determine whether creep feeding is profitable or not on an operation is a matter of penciling out the following calculation:
[(lbs of creep fed per day) x (creep days) / (feed efficiency: lb feed per lb gain)] x (pred. calf value)
[(lbs of creep fed per day) x (creep days) x ($ per lb of creep)]
$ Profit or (net Loss) due to creep feeding
Consider the following sample using this creep feeding calculation:
Take 125-lb. good quality healthy calves nursing average milking cows and are raised on medium quality pasture. These calves are crept fed 3.5 lb./d. (seasonal average) of a commercial creep feed costing 15c/lb. ($330/mt) for 150 days. Feed conversion is estimated at 6.0 lbs. of ration/lb. of gain (re: the resulting average daily gain only from creep feeding (not milk or pasture) yields 0.58 lbs. of gain per day). Finally, if we predict that these calves are at worth at least $1.25/lb. (sample value not a prediction!) in the fall, then our net profit due to creep feeding during the spring and summer is about $30 per calf.
The fulcrum of above equation to generate profits is based on the feed efficiency of your creep ration to generate steady gains and thus profits. Differences in feed intake among most creep rations is relatively narrow (i. e.: 2.5 to 4.0 lbs.) and therefore has only a respective small impact on the economics of creep feeding. Similarly, the number of days on creep should be substantial (re: 100 to 200 days), but a difference of less than +/-30 days of creep feeding only means a disparity of about $6.5 per head. In contrast, a drop in feed efficiency of 0.75 to 1.0 amongst creep rations (re: keeping all other inputs constant) means a loss in revenue of $13 to $15 per calf at the end of a 150-day creep feeding season or 50 per cent profit drop compared to the above creep feeding example!
Just what kind of creep ration should be fed to this years’ spring calves in order to provide optimum feed efficiency as well as used to promote good skeletal and steady lean tissue growth (0.5 to 0.75 lbs./ day), rather than to simply fatten calves? The best answer is that a good creep feed should be palatable and nutritious. In many situations, the formula for the “perfect” creep ration is often a combination of common sense, experience and personal preference.
Whole or slightly rolled oats is a popular grain in many successfully fed creep rations, because of its bulk and moderate energy content relative to other cereal grains. Furthermore, there seems to be fewer problems with over consumption at the beginning of the pasture creep feeding season with an oat-based creep ration and the anticipation of sub clinical acidosis is not a concern.
Likewise, barley is also a good energy source for a creep ration, which helps maintain good creep ration feed efficiency throughout the pasture season. However, this Canadian cereal should be limited to 20 per cent of the creep ration in order to avoid providing too much dietary energy; thus turning the creep feed into a fattening ration and also due to its greater risk of causing digestive upsets.
Consequently, a solid creep performer for spring calves should contain about 14 to 16 per cent protein, 67 to 70 per cent TDN (energy), and the NRC recommended amounts of macro-, trace-minerals and vitamins for growing beef calves. As a suggestion (personal preference), it might contain 60 per cent oats, 20 per cent barley and the remaining 20 per cent from a commercial protein supplement (contains plant protein — not urea, minerals, vitamins, plus monensin sodium for coccidiosis control). This ration might not be the “perfect” creep feed, but its formula should put some modest weight gains on calves (in addition to milk and pasture), without getting them too fleshy by the time they are weaned.
Although, creep feeding is an opportunity to put solid profitable gains on spring calves, not all calves should be crept fed. For example, replacement heifers should only need to gain about 1.0 to 1.5 lb. per day from weaning to breeding in order to achieve a benchmark of 65 per cent of their mature weight at breeding. These gains should be achieved largely through moderate milk production of their dams and relatively good quality pasture grass. It should always be a concern that too much bodyweight gain in replacement heifers (over 2.0 to 2.5 lb./d.) may lead to a life-time of poor milk production.
The final decision to feed creep ration to calves in 2009 rests upon the attractiveness of its economics. Some people will decide to creep feed only as a means of supplementing the nutrient requirements of growing calves, when milk and forage supplies are in short supply. Many producers will use it as a valuable tool in order to put extra weight on high performance calves and a chance to put more saleable dollars in their pocket.
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]