Taking Another Look at Creep Feeding

It seems rather silly to be talking about creep feeding calves as we are just heading into pasture season, but after the stress of last summer, I felt it was essential to take another look at the pros and cons of creep feeding calves. We have featured several  articles highlighting the importance of preparing calves for weaning. There are tons of other articles that also cover the pros and cons of creep feeding calves. This article is a summary of the information available.

After looking at the long-term forecast for this year, it looks like another dry and hot year for us in the Northern Plains (let’s hope the meteorologists are wrong!) Setting them up for success will be ideal if we need to be ready to early-wean calves again this summer.

Before we begin, the following questions should be answered:

Are you running a lot of firstcalf heifers? Older cows? A herd that doesn’t milk as well as it should? Or a herd that milks too well? Short on quality pasture? Or grazing longer than the pasture can meet the needs of your cow herd? Above average growth potential in your calves?Selling at weaning? Feeding in confinement/dry-lot situation? Wanting to early wean calves to save some condition on the cows and/or stretch pasture?

All the above questions are a great reason to creep feed calves. And just because you want to creep calves does not mean they must be on feed for the entire pre-weaning period. Even feeding only for the last 3-4 weeks before weaning will benefit the health of the calves through decreased weight loss, morbidity, and mortality.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve increased milk production in the beef herd, yet the national average weaning weight has not increased along with the rise in milk production. One train of thought is that forage quality is limiting the ability of cows to produce to their potential. High milk cows have higher maintenance needs, as well as higher lactation needs. If we are selecting for higher milk cows but run them on lower-quality forage than they need, creep feed can fill the nutritional gap and still help the calves reach their growth potential, especially if they are headed for the feedlot. As spring calves grow, forage quality is declining at the same time. The cow’s milk production is also declining (from the quality of pasture and the normal progression of lactation, as peak lactation is 45-60 days post-calving), and calves will likely fall short in meeting their growth requirements.

• Pasture Quality – Can make up for any deficiencies in pasture quality or quantity

• Less weaning stress
1. Can start coccidiosis control pre-weaning
2. Calves wean easier and get on/stay on feed better
3. Better ADG in the first 28 days post-weaning than calves not creep fed (so they may not have a heavier finish weight, but they may reach finishing sooner)

• Uniform calf crop
1. Can realize 30-80lbs of gain in calves
2. Helpful for first-calf heifers and older cows struggling to produce enough milk
3. May make up for poor nutrition in gestation

• Helps develop the rumen – More efficient growth on grain—VFAs produced help stimulate the development of the rumen better than hay

• Possibility of making more money if selling at weaning (assuming appropriate cost analysis of creep)

• May be masking some poor milking in the herd

• Can be expensive

• Can cause health issues in calves if you run out of feed

• Non-creeped calves catch up to creep fed calves post-weaning

• High energy creep can overdevelop heifer calves

Neither Pro nor Con
• Feed conversion
1. Excellent pasture tends to lead to less efficient creep feed conversion (14:1 to 18:1 or 14 lbs. of feed per 1 lb. of gain)
2. Lower forage quality may see conversions closer to 4-6:1
3. Average feed conversion is 8-12 lbs. of feed per every 1 lb. of body weight gain

• Milk intake not different between creep and non-creep BUT great substitute for forage when forage needs to be stretched

The great creep debate will likely rage on for years to come. If you want to set calves up for success, at the minimum, creep feed them for the last 3-4 weeks before weaning. It’s easier to prevent problems post-weaning than to treat them, especially in today’s world of antibiotics in short supply.