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To creep feed or not?

Feeding: News Roundup from the March 2018 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Creep feeding is the practice of providing a highly digestible supplemental feed source to beef calves. Implementation of a creep-feeding strategy allows for increased pre-weaning weights, improved cow body condition score and increased pasture availability by reducing average forage consumption per calf. A successful creep-feeding program also requires access to clean, fresh water at all times!

As calves reach weaning age, their nutrient requirements increase significantly in order to maintain adequate growth. At this point, milk production and pasture conditions are generally decreasing, creating a nutrition gap between calf requirements and actual intake. Decreased pasture conditions also add extra stress to the dam as her body tries to keep up with the demands of lactation and re-breeding. Therefore, calves may be unable to reach their full genetic potential by the time they are three months old. Supplementation with a creep feed allows calves to fill that nutritional gap without putting added stress on the cows prior to winter. Having said that, the benefits of creep feeding will vary from operation to operation, as well as follow seasonal and price variations from year to year. It is important to consider the calf selling price, the cost of feed and pasture conditions prior to starting a creep-feeding program. Last year’s program may not be what is needed for maximum productivity and profit this year!

The table below can be used as a tool to determine if there is a cost advantage to creep feeding for your operation.

Creep feeding on pasture

Feed conversion (lbs. creep feed/lbs. additional calf gain) for creep-fed calves is higher than pasture-fed calves. On average, the feed conversion for creep-fed calves is 4-6:1, meaning it takes four to six lbs. creep feed for one lb. of weight gain. However, when pasture conditions are excellent, the benefits of creep feeding calves are reduced. Calves will consume less creep feed resulting in a feed conversion closer to 14:1 – 18:1 (Rasby, 2011). When pasture conditions are poor, which leads to lower milk production, calves that have the option of creep feed will seek it out and continue to grow.

The benefits of creep feeding calves while on pasture are increased when pasture conditions are poor. However, when pasture is lush, starting calves on creep even just three to four weeks prior to weaning is an effective management strategy to reduce stress during this time without resulting in calves that are too fleshy. It pre-conditions the calves to consuming dry/stored feeds, which can aid in limiting disease issues, treatment costs and enhance post-weaning performance.

Creep feeding isn’t just for the calves — the cow herself benefits from creep feeding. The added nutrition available to the calves through creep feeding reduces the energetic drain of lactation on the cows. High energy demand from lactation can cause a loss in body condition. Maintaining cow condition while on pasture improves her chances of being re-bred and producing a healthy calf. Moreover, cows in adequate body condition when entering the winter feeding period will be the cheapest to feed.

Creep feeding considerations

It can be advantageous to creep feed calves from first-calf heifers or poor producing cows in order to ensure these calves reach their full genetic potential while reducing stress on the dams. However, extensive feed supplementation to replacement heifer calves could result in over-conditioning, leading to a reduced lifetime reproductive performance. Increased fat deposition in the mammary glands of immature heifers has been linked to reduced milk production and offspring weaning weights.

When properly managed, creep feeding can have a significant beneficial impact on your operation through:

  • Increase of 30-60 lbs. per calf at weaning.
  • Increased financial gain per calf.
  • Increased availability of pasture forage for cow consumption, especially in drought conditions.
  • Improved body condition score (BCS) of cows nursing calves offered creep feed (better BCS is linked to faster re-breeding).
  • Production of a uniform calf crop.
  • Reduced weaning stress.

Conclusion

Creep feeding can be a significant management and economic tool for raising your beef herd. Careful consideration of multiple factors should be conducted prior to starting a feeding program. Ensuring that your cost of production is in line with your profit margin is critical (using a calculator similar to the one provided earlier in this article can be a great tool). Remember to evaluate the benefits each year. Beyond the issues you face today, maintaining strong growth and looking after the welfare of your cows and calves is critical to future production and profit.

Kristin Thompson, M.Sc. ruminant nutrition associate and Kathleen Shore, M.Sc. ruminant nutritionist New-Life Mills, a division of Parrish & Heimbecker, Limited.

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