Creep feeding — providing supplemental feed to calves while they are still taking milk from the cow — is utilized by many producers. It adds to the nutrition they have available from milk and pasture, boosting preweaning weight gain and weaning weights. It also has the advantage of getting calves used to solid food before weaning time so that the change isn’t so much of a shock. However, there are some disadvantages as well.
The gains that producers can obtain from creep feeding range from 5 to 100 pounds extra over calves that don’t receive creep feed. Under pasture conditions, an average of 10 to 27 pounds is common.
The benefit of creep feed is largely dependent on the cows’ milk production. If cows are excellent milk-producers, the extra gain from creep feed is minimal because eating feed reduces the milk volume calves consume.
However, milk production depends on the nutrition provided in late gestation (which impacts cow body reserves), food availability on pasture, as well as the genetic potential of the cow. Creep-fed calves born to inadequately nourished cows (the pasture conditions are poor, limiting milk production) gain almost twice that of calves born to cows that are fed well over gestation.
Young cows (two and three years old) often have less milk available and creep feeding their calves boosts growth and lends itself to a more uniform calf crop.
Calves put most of their weight on in late summer and early fall (with spring calving). Unfortunately, this coincides with depleting pasture quality and falling milk production. The gap between the calves’ nutrient needs and nutrients supplied widens as time goes on. This deficit in energy and especially protein can be compensated by creep feed. From a pasture perspective, utilizing creep feed allows the stocking density to increase because it takes pressure off the available forage.
Creep feeding is economically advantageous when older cows or young heifers (both groups have the poorest milk production) have calved and they can separated from the herd. It’s also useful during periods of drought and if you want to conserve pasture.
Creep feeding is also an integral part of a preconditioning program. It allows calves to become accustomed to solid food before weaning time. This reduces weaning stress and improves gains by getting them on feed faster.
What some producers don’t realize is that there can be disadvantages with creep feeding if it’s not done properly. This can be seen if calves are fed too much prior to weaning, but it depends if the calves have put on fat
or bone and muscle. Calves that are fat at weaning time won’t grow as efficiently in the feedlot and will be discounted by buyers.
Creep feeding is helpful to ensure heifers reach sexual maturity by 15 months of age, but they should only be fed for maturity, not fat gain. Replacement heifers that pack on too much fat in the udder end up with less viable mammary tissue which suppresses subsequent milk production. Creep-fed heifers give birth to calves four kilograms lighter for their first three calf crops than those of heifers not given creep feed.
When deciding which cows to retain in a herd, if selection is based on milk-producing ability, it can be confusing if you are weighing calves that have been creep fed. It is hard to allocate the gain from milk and gain from feed.
If creep feeding is not right for a particular operation, there are alternatives. If cows are nutritionally depleted and producing marginal amounts of milk at the expense of their body and future fertility, the calves can be weaned early.
Another option is providing high-quality pasture forage to calves. This can be accomplished by allowing calves access to new pasture before the cows are let in. This can be done with specially designed gates or electric fencing. The forage can be normal pasture or land seeded to provide high quality forage such as alfalfa.
Economics is always a determinant in creep feeding. From a cash standpoint, it makes sense to implement creep feeding if grain prices are low and weaned calf prices are high. It also helps when heifer calves have mothers that are poor milk producers and you want to ensure their puberty occurs on time (between 13 and 15 months).
However, it does not make sense to use creep feed if cows are milking well and providing all the calves’ needs. The same holds true if pastures are providing excellent nutrition. High grain prices may also make creep feeding uneconomical.