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Creep Feeding the 2004 Calf Crop

Livestock Update, June 2004

Mark L. Wahlberg, Extension Animal Scientist, VA Tech

Creep feeding is the process of providing feed for the calf which the cow cannot access. We typically think of this as a grain feeding program, but it could also be in the form of forage. The idea is to enable the calf to consume a better diet than the forage which is available to the cowherd, and thus enable the calf to gain more weight.

Calves typically consume all the milk their mother makes for them. If still hungry, they will then consume other feeds, whether they be grass or clover from the pasture or grain from the creep feeder. As a result, we don't "lighten the load" on the cow by creep feeding. She still makes the same amount of milk and the calf still prefers that to anything else. What does happen is the calf consumes the creep feed in place of the forage which is available. So creep feed becomes a substitute for forage, not for milk.

Efficiency of creep feed use is usually computed as follows:

Pounds of Creep Feed Consumed
(Gain of Creep Fed Calf) - (Gain of Unsupplemented Calf)

This calculation gives us information about the quantity of creep feed needed to produce an additional pound of weight gain above that of the calf which is not creep fed.

When forage is high in quality and readily available, this substitution of creep feed for forage results in a very low efficiency value. Various trials have reported conversions of 10 to 30 pounds of feed needed to produce an additional pound of calf weight gain. This is because the forage quality is so good that when the calf eats the creep feed in place of the forage, there is only a small increase in the quality of his diet, thus his gain is increased only a little. If, on the other hand, forage quality is low or forage availability is limited, conversions of 4 to 8 : 1 are often observed. The quality or amount of forage is limiting the gain of the calf, and when creep feed is available, the calf has a much higher nutrient intake, thus he gains noticeably faster.

Whether or not a certain level of efficiency is profitable depends on the value of the additional pounds of calf, and the cost of the creep feed the calf is eating. More on that a little later.

Creep feed can be offered in at least 3 different forms. These are:

Composition of the creep feed is very important. It certainly must be highly palatable, or the calves won't eat it readily. It needs to be fairly high in energy, so the calf is eating a better diet than the pasture that is available. It also needs to be at least moderate in protein, because the composition of gain of the calf at the younger stage of his life is mostly muscle, which contains protein. It is often recommended that creep feeds contain at least 14% protein, and at least 75% TDN to meet these requirements. Typically, the creep feeds which contain salt to limit intake have a higher protein content, often 30 to 50% protein, and intake is limited to from 1 to 2 pounds daily.

The readily available byproduct feeds such as soy hulls, wheat midds, and corn gluten feed will work nicely in a creep diet. However, the best creep feed may be a blend of more than one of these. Here is the nutrient content of these 3 feeds:

Feed Percent Protein Percent TDN
Soy Hulls 11 - 13 75 - 80
Wheat Midds 15 18 78 - 83
Corn Gluten Feed 18 - 24 75 - 80

These feeds are more variable in nutrient content than are whole grains, in part due to the differences in processing methods used in the various plants from which they are obtained. Wheat midds comes the closest to working as a creep feed when used as a single feed. However, it is the least available throughout Virginia. Corn gluten feed looks good in its nutritional profile, but is the least palatable of the three. Soy hulls may be the most palatable, but is too low in protein to be used by itself. Consequently, a blend of 2 or all 3 of these feeds is probably preferable to just one by itself. In addition, these feeds can be blended with other feeds, such as cracked corn, and that mixture used as a creep feed. Corn gluten feed is probably the best choice for this use.

Creep grazing is a very low-cost form of creep feeding. The forage needs to be high in quality and palatable. It also needs to be in an area adjacent to the pasture which the cows are grazing. Forages that work well for creep grazing include high quality grass-legume mixtures, such as bluegrass, orchardgrass, or low endophyte fescue with clover or alfalfa. Annuals work well also, especially dwarf pearl millet, or small grain for later in the fall. The forage has got to be kept young and vegetative to sustain high quality. As a rough guide, 1 Acre should handle 10 calves as a creep grazing area.

There are many advantages to creep feeding. Here is a list of some of those.

Likewise, there are some disadvantages

Finally, there are a couple of myths about creep feeding. The real story is:

Economics of creep feeding are tricky. If appearance of the calves is important (such as a purebred program), then creep feeding has an economic advantage that is difficult to measure. Outside of the purebred program, the economics of creep feeding is based on the cost of the feed, efficiency of use for weight gain, and the value of those extra pounds. A simple table from the VCE publication about Creep Feeding (400-003) provides information about the cost of the extra gain from creep feeding under various combinations of those other factors.

Cost (Cents per Pound) of Extra Gain from Creep Feeding
Feed/ pound extra gain Feed cost ($/ cwt)
  4 5 6 7 8 9
6 24 30 36 42 48 54
8 32 40 48 56 64 72
10 40 50 60 70 80 90
12 48 60 72 84 96 108

From the table we can see that if the conversion of creep feed is 10:1, which is often the case with self-fed rations of lower protein content, the cost of gain ranges from 40 cents to 90 cents per pound, depending on the cost of the feed. If creep feed costs $160 per ton, which is equivalent to $8.00 per cwt, at a 10:1 conversion the cost of added gain is 80 cents per pound.

What should a commercial cattle producer do relative to creep feeding? As can be seen, it depends on several factors. Here are some specific scenarios with recommendations:

  1. Calves born in February through April, rainfall is adequate so forage is readily available and of good quality. Calves are sold right off the cow in October. - Recommendation is to do no creep feeding now. Forage situation means that efficiency of feed use will be poor, so unlikely to be profitable. Re evaluate the situation in late July. Maybe some benefit to creep feeding during the 60 days prior to sale.
  2. Same as above, but calves will be retained in a short backgrounding period and sent immediately to the feedlot. Recommendation - Don't creep feed now, but probably plan on creep feeding for 30 to 60 days prior to weaning to ease weaning stress. Consider limit feeding creep as opposed to free-choice. Whether sold after backgrounding or held in a retained ownership program, creep feeding as described will be beneficial.
  3. Calves born in October-November, rainfall is adequate now with good forage quality. Calves will be weaned in July and kept on the farm until sold in early fall. Recommendation - This is a tough one. Depends on milk production of cows. If high milk genetics, such as Simmental cross, then perhaps waiting will pay off. If milk production is low, creeping the calves prior to weaning may pay. This is only if calves will be fed to continue to gain well after weaning. If gain of the calves after weaning will be less than 2 pounds per day, gain advantage due to creep feeding will be lost.
  4. Spring-born calves (similar to A or B) and it stops raining. Forage supply becomes limited. Cows are hungry and getting thin. Recommendation - Calf growth will suffer under this scenario. Creep feeding to maintain calf growth should be considered. However, this won't help the cow. To maintain calf growth and help the cow's condition, early weaning of the calf should be considered.

Summary - Creep feeding will make calves weigh more at weaning. Creep feeding may be either grain or forage. If the cows and calves are grazing good quality forage, the creep feeding advantage is less, and the efficiency of creep feed use is poor. Cost-effective creep feeding happens when feed use is efficient, calf prices are high, and grain prices are moderate. Creep-fed calves experience less health problems during weaning. Creep feeding provides the best advantage to producers who retain ownership beyond the weaning phase, and for producers who have poor-milking cows which wean light weight calves. Creep feeding may not pay for producers with an excellent forage program and productive cows.

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