Feeder calf prices are currently at all-time highs and, consequently, the value of your calves’ gain is worth more than ever.
A variety of management strategies can be implemented to enhance the value of your calf crop. Depending on your situation, creep feeding could prove to be a worthwhile strategy.
The most common goal of creep feeding is to increase the growth rate of calves still nursing cows. Having said this, other potential benefits of creep feeding calves can include producing a more uniform calf crop, reducing weaning stress on calves as well as producing calves that could have a greater chance to have an increased final quality grade if their genetics allow.
Because the income of a cow/calf enterprise is largely dependent on the sales value of the weaned calves, a great deal of emphasis is placed on calf gains.
The calf’s genetic ability to grow and convert feed is a major factor in determining weaning weight. However, other ways to increase weaning weight are to increase the cow’s milk production, increase forage consumed by the calf or provide supplemental nutrition by creep feeding.
The cow’s ability to produce milk is affected by her genetics, stage of lactation and the amount of feed available to meet her requirements for optimal milk production.
A cow normally produces adequate milk to meet the calf’s nutrient requirements until the calf is 2 to 3 months old. Thus, creep feeding is normally not recommended with very young calves.
After 90 days, milk production declines, yet the calf’s requirement for energy, protein and minerals continues to increase.
If you have an insufficient amount of forage available to meet this increased nutrient need, a deficiency referred to as the “hungry calf gap” results (Figure 1).
This nutrient deficiency must be met by consuming adequate amounts of high-quality feed or the desired calf growth will not be achieved. Forage from pastures or hay can sometimes meet this need – if not, creep feeding may be warranted.
As pastures mature during the summer, nutrient levels decline dramatically, reducing milk production, calf performance and potentially reproduction.
Numerous management practices are available such as rotational grazing and selective cutting of mature forages to force re-growth of higher-quality forage that results in improved forage quality and subsequent herd performance.
During dry periods, when forage availability is low and pasture management schemes are ineffective, it could be beneficial to provide creep feed to meet the calf’s nutrient requirements.
Free-choice creep feeding
Creep-feeding research consistently shows that free-choice creep feeding results in increased weaning weights but, because of poor conversion of creep feed to added calf gain, it does not always result in an economic advantage.
Conversions of creep feed to gain can range quite dramatically. Observations have ranged from 5-to-1 for calves on poor pasture to 20-1 to calves on excellent pasture.
In these studies, milk and forage intake is not measured to provide a true biological conversion of total feed to total gain, but rather measures the conversion of creep to additional gain.
This is, however, an important tool when evaluating the economical feasibility of creep-feeding systems.
If a calf is receiving sufficient amounts of milk and has abundant, high-quality forage available, it will be gaining at its genetic potential.
Creep feed cannot economically improve performance in this situation. The creep feed is substituted for the forage and the conversion of creep feed to added weaning weight is poor.
The most efficient conversion of creep to added weaning weight is when rapidly growing calves cannot maximize growth potential without supplemental feed.
Limit-fed creep feeding
Limit-fed creep feeding has been evaluated in an attempt to improve the economics of creep feeding. Performance has been improved by providing only the nutrients the calf is deficient in and maintaining forage intake.
Eight to 10 percent added salt is used to limit creep feed consumption in these research trials. Research at Oklahoma State evaluating limit-fed creep feeding programs shows increased gain over non-creep-fed calves with significant improvement in feed efficiency when compared to free-choice creep-fed calves.
While this approach works well for calves where protein is the first limiting nutrient, situations where energy is the most limiting nutrient may arise. In these situations, limit-feeding creep feed may or may not bridge the gap.
The additional costs of labor or the use of salt or other substances as an intake limiter may be met with disapproval by some producers.
Researchers from the University of Florida showed another advantage of creep feeding: Calves that have been eating creep feed for a minimum of three weeks typically adapt to bunk feeding more quickly after being weaned, resulting in improved gains during the growing phase.
Additionally, a study from Kansas State University showed cattle that had been limit creep-fed recovered weight loss from weaning and shipping more rapidly and had fewer treatments when compared to non-creep-fed calves.
Calves that have been creep fed may also experience an advantage in marbling. It is now documented that marbling develops far earlier than previously thought.
During situations where energy may be limiting, creep feeding could provide the animal a chance to more readily meet its genetic potential for intramuscular fat development.
Researchers have documented that calves placed on creep for 80 days or more have had increased quality grade versus non-creep-fed calves. The best practice to implement to maintain this carcass advantage is to place cattle in the feedyard after weaning.
Drawbacks to creep feeding
While cattle seem to gain more and adapt to bunk feeding more readily than non-creep-fed calves, that performance advantage seems to be alleviated through the feedlot phase. Gains and feed conversion tend to favor non-creep-fed calves.
Creep feeding programs for replacement heifers need to be highly scrutinized. It is well documented that heifers that develop udder fat have lower milk production as mature cows.
Excessive nutrient delivery can result in udder fat deposition during the period of mammary cell development, which can start as early as 3 months old.
Producers need to carefully evaluate whether the weaning weight advantages outweigh the optimization of future milk production.
High-protein feeds could be utilized to mitigate the negative effects of creep feeding, but unless increasing growth rate or body condition for a seedstock sale is warranted, creep feeding is usually unnecessary to get heifers to their desired bodyweight at breeding.
Most situations allow virgin heifers to attain 65 percent of their mature bodyweight without supplemental creep.
With calf value at an all-time high, creep feeding could provide a way to enhance the profitability of your enterprise.
Careful consideration needs to be given to environmental conditions, pasture quality, genetics, goals, markets, available feeds and feed costs to determine if creep feeding is something you should implement. Work with your consultant to evaluate what’s best for your operation.
Studies show calves that eat creep feed for at least three weeks are quick to adapt to bunk feeding. Photo by Progressive Cattleman staff.
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