Is It Worth Creep Feeding Calves?

It’s hard to believe that winter is finally over. It wasn’t a particularly bad winter as western Canadian winters go, but it was winter all the same. An early warm spring was not only welcomed, but embraced by many people. Likewise, most cow herds across the Prairies also came through winter in decent body condition, and other than the odd cows giving a few producers an occasional sleepless night, most cows calved out nicely, and produced a healthy population of spring calves.

It’s still anybody’s guess as to what the long-term spring weather will bring, but green grass was already sprouted in many fields, even before all the snow disappeared. This was a good sign, because good pasture conditions always support good milk production in nursing cows and therefore gets their newborn calves off to a good start. Given, such a positive environment this early, many producers ask, “Is it worth creep feeding my spring calves this year?”

Whether you decide to creep feed your calves or not, all beef programs including creep feeding calves for good frame size and lean muscle growth, should produce a tangible or visible profit and then yield indirect benefits in other areas of your operation. To determine whether creep feeding is profitable on its own merit, the following calculation can be used:

[(lbs. of creep fed per day) x (creep days) / (feed efficiency: lb. feed per lb. gain)] x (pred. calf value)

Subtract

[(lbs. of creep fed per day) x (creep days) x ($ per lb. of creep)]

Equals

$ Profit or (net Loss) due to creep feeding

For example, if we raised a group of spring calves nursing cows (producing about 15 lbs. of milk per day) and grazed both cows and calves on medium quality pasture, our creep calculations for a five-month period (May 1 -October 1 or 150 days) is as follows with the following feeding programs and related costs: A creep ration fed at three lb./head/d @ 12.5 c/lb, given a standard feed conversion of 6.5 of creep ration to one pound of gain and we predict calves will be worth at least $1.25/lb. (sample value) in the fall. Therefore, our creep-feeding profit is about $30 per head.

Strong advocates of annual creep feeding such as Dan Faulkner, a beef researcher at the University of Illinois, believe our recent markets dictate that creep feeding presents a profitable opportunity for the average cow-calf operator. He believes that feeding them a high-quality creep ration on pasture should unlock today’s high genetic potential of our fast growing calves.

Regardless of the particular year, he suggests that small-to medium-frame nursing calves can gain as much as two to 2.5 pounds per day on pasture and creep feed, while larger-frame calves could be targeted closer to three pounds per day. It is felt that these calves not only have the genetic ability to gain more weight on creep feed, but they can convert creep feed quite efficiently, which ultimately lowers cost of gain. His backup research demonstrates that high-energy creep feeds also tend to lay down more marbling than 10 years ago, making these cattle of even more valuable to feedlot buyers.

At the other end of the spectrum, some producers may decide not to creep feed their calves this year. They view standard creep rations as nutritional supplements, which should only be fed in years where only grazing pastures (re: drought or widespread winterkill) cannot meet the cows or spring calves’ energy and protein requirements.

More moderate producers seem to creep feed every year, but only during the latter months of the pasture season. They tend to recognize that creep feeding can be very beneficial at three to four months after calving, when the beef cow can naturally meet only 50 per cent of her growing calf’s nutrient requirements as she produces less and less milk and her calf is growing bigger at the same time. Furthermore, they see the grasses in their pastures maturing too. They are nearly not as lush or nutritionally adequate compared to the beginning of the grazing season.

Those people that do not purchase creep feed for their calves every year or only feed it during the latter part of each season may have a viable point of view. Feed efficiency of supplemental creep feed for spring calves is not only naturally variable (ranging from five to 15 lb. of feed per lb. of gain), but indirectly proportional to the quality of grazed pasture as forages start to become a significant component of the calves’ diet. Creep feeding calves, grazing fair-to medium-quality pastures, yields a creep feed efficiency of a standard six to seven lbs. of feed per lb. of gain, while creep rations provided on tame higher-quality pastures often yields a much lower feed efficiency of about nine to 11 lbs. per lb. of gain.

Given our above creep sample calculation to illustrate its reduced economic merit; a drop of three points to a feed efficiency of 9.5 amongst creep-fed calves, grazing better quality pastures and keeping all other inputs constant, means a drop in potential revenue of about $27 per calf or about a 90 per cent drop in direct potential profit due to creep feeding. Sometimes, a decision not to creep feed calves is based upon allowing nutritious grasses to put more economic gains on the calves, rather than rely on the concentrated nutrition formulated in creep rations.

Some producers forgo creep feeding spring calves because they are concerned that replacement breeding heifers may receive too much dietary energy and become over-conditioned, which negatively impacts their milk ability later on as mature cows. Research at the University of Illinois demonstrated that a field trial with over-conditioned cross-bred Simmental X Angus replacement heifers reported a consistent reduction of 25 per cent in milk production in their first lactation compared to control animals in acceptable body condition. Other concerns about creep feeding include: returning creep-fed calves to grass and also marketing fleshy weaned animals in the fall.

Most people, who creep feed spring calves every year, agree with these last findings. However, many of these producers will either sort replacement heifers from their cow-calf pairs and either graze them, separately or regulate the amount of creep feed that all calves (both steers and heifers) are receiving. Consequently, they also refute such claims of over-conditioned heifers by expressing that properly managed creep-fed replacement heifers with a good frame size and desirable body condition of about 2.8 to three (one = very thin to five = obese) at breeding time are likely to have higher conception rates. Other advantages of annual creep feeding of both heifers and steers are: produces of significantly larger framed feedlot animals, puts “catch-up” weight on late-born spring calves or calves from poor-milking cows and lastly, helps “bunk-break” feedlot destined calves.

Although, the formula for a standard creep ration does not have to be fancy in order to support whether a producer should creep feed or not, a good commercial creep feed for growing spring calves should be nutritious, palatable, and made up of medium-to high-quality feed ingredients (i. e. no feed screenings or non-protein nitrogen such as urea). Its nutrient profile should contain about 65 to 70 per cent TDN (energy –largely dependent on pasture quality), 14 to 16 per cent protein (also complementary to pasture quality) and the NRC recommendations for macro-, trace minerals and vitamins for growing beef calves. Fed at a target of three to four lb per head per day, this suggested creep feed should support supplemental modest gains of 0.5 –0.75 lb. per head per day, aside performance derived from cow’s milk and pasture.

A well-balanced creep diet that proves itself as a means of putting on extra saleable weaned weight on genetic-promising calves might make a converts out of producers, who traditionally feeds creep ration only to supplement the nutrient requirements of growing calves as they need it. Similarly, those producers, who always creep feed their calves might think again about the appropriate time to creep feed calves after occasionally finding a feed bill in the mail, while a few of their calves don’t bring as much money as hoped at the sale barn. In the end, those producers who do their homework and make the best and appropriate decisions to creep feed their spring calves will generate the most profits.

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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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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