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Creep Feeding Calves

Creep-feeding is the practice of providing supplemental feed to calves in order to increase their average daily gain and weaning weight. Creep-feeding can be a useful management tool under different scenarios. For example when milk production declines or pasture growth is inadequate to maintain normal calf growth or when pasture quality declines later in the season.

The normal milk production curve of a beef cow decreases in late summer and fall and would not meet the increasing nutrient demand of the growing calf. In addition, as the grazing season progresses, pastures decline in feed quality and quantity. The creep feed is expected to make up for the calf's nutrient requirements not supplied by the dam's milk. Milk production of the cow will depend on several factors such as breed, age, weather and the pasture make-up (presence of legumes).

When to creep-feed

Creep-feeding should be treated as a management decision rather than a routine practice. It is important to evaluate your reasons for getting your calves onto dry feed before weaning and to creep-feed at the appropriate time. What are the production and economic benefits to the operation by creep feeding? Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Creep Feeding Calculator is a good resource that will enable you determine if creep feeding will be economically beneficial to you.

If there is reduced milk production, creep-feeding can then be used as a substitute for milk or forage thereby reducing nursing pressure on the cow. First-calf heifers and old cows may not produce enough milk that will support a growing calf, especially if the calf has excellent genetic potential for growth. A calf's first preference is milk, then a highly palatable creep feed, and lastly forage. The average beef cow produces between 4.5 and 9 kg (10 and 20 lb.) of milk per day. Heifers will produce less than a mature beef cow. Ideally, milk production should be in the range of five to 10 kg (11 to 22 lb.) per day. A quickly growing crossbred calf can handle up to 10 to 15 kg (22 to 33 lb.) of milk per day by the time it is two months of age. A beef cow's milk production peaks at about two months after calving and then begins to decline gradually.

Consequently, this creates a nutritional gap between what the calf requires to sustain its potential for growth, and what the calf can obtain from the dam's milk and the available forage in the pasture. Some form of supplemental feed can be used to maintain the continued normal growth rate on the calves during the nutritional gap. Otherwise, the calf's growth rate will be less than what it could be if sufficient nutrients were available.

Even though calves can be creep-fed throughout the entire summer, it is of more value when forage supply or quality or both are low. Creep feeding is most effective during drought or whenever quantity or quality of the pasture does not meet the calf's nutritional requirements for growth. When milk and creep-feed are available, the creep-feed will be substituted for forage. Under poor growth conditions, creep-feeding may conserve enough forage to maintain pasture condition. It is estimated that for every 0.5 kg (one lb.) of creep-feed consumed by the calf, there is a saving of 0.25 to 0.5 kg (0.5 to one lb.) of forage. When creep-feed is provided for calves, there will be more forage available for the cows which may leave room for increased stocking rates.

It may be appropriate to creep-feed calves that were born late or after the calving season as a strategy to increase their weaning weight. The typical growth rate for beef calves is between 0.8 to 1.2 kg per day (1.75 to 2.75 lb. per day) from birth through to weaning. However, increasing the weight of calves may attract price discounts for heavier calves. Employing this practice may be necessary if you want to take advantage of low grain prices or you have large framed calves that are destined for the feedlot immediately after weaning.

Types of creep-feeds to meet nutrient requirements of the calf

The type of creep feed to use depends on the quantity and quality of forage available in the pasture. Energy or protein creep feeds can be available to producers. The energy content of pastures decreases late in the growing season while dormant or mature pastures will be deficient in protein. Late-season forages and stockpiled forages will not have enough protein to meet the cow's lactation needs, or sustain normal levels of growth in the calf.

Energy creep-feeds can be made up of on-farm grains, such as oats or barley (either whole, cracked or rolled). Sources of protein creep-feeds include soybean meal, canola meal, dehydrated alfalfa pellets, or a commercial protein supplement without urea. A protein source with urea should not be used in a creep-feed for young calves since they do not have a fully functional rumen. Commercially available, nutritionally balanced, creep-feeds in a pellet form can be more convenient to use and often will be of similar or lower cost to those made up on the farm.

In situations where forage quantity may be more limited, but the energy and protein may be more adequate, utilizing a creep feed with a protein content of 13 per cent would be the appropriate choice. For situations where quantity of forage may be less of an issue, but where the forage quality is lower, (such as in late summer with more mature forage or on stockpiled forages), a creep-feed with 16 per cent protein would be recommended.

In order to meet the requirements of a growing calf, the energy content of creep-feed should be in the range of 65 per cent to 70 per cent Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) (2.9 to 3.1 Mcal/kg digestible energy) and about 13 per cent protein. The creep-feed should have calcium and phosphorus levels of 0.7 per cent and 0.5 per cent, respectively, of the dry matter content. Vitamins A, D and E, and a trace mineralized salt should also be included. 

Some considerations when starting calves on creep-feed

Creep-feeding can facilitate early weaning, particularly during a dry year. The creep-feed gets the calves accustomed to consuming dry feed. The creep-feeder should be portable, keep the feed dry and be capable of holding a week’s supply of creep-feed. The feeder should keep the cows out while allowing the calves to enter.

To start calves on creep-feed, the feeder should be placed near watering sources where the herd congregates. Once the calves have started to use the feeder, it can be moved to other areas of the pasture to encourage grazing in less-used areas. The feeder can be a useful tool during dry years to "lead" the herd to use the areas they might otherwise avoid.

Calves can be weaned successfully at about 180 kg (400 lb.). These young, weaned calves can be placed on a nutritional program to maintain their normal growth of 0.8 to 1.2 kg/day (1.75 to 2.75 lb./day). They will be able to achieve their normal weaning weights at their usual weaning dates and, at the same time, do it more efficiently.

The feed conversion of early weaned calves on dry feed is much better than the overall feed conversion of the cow nursing her calf. The feed requirements for the cows will be reduced once the calves are weaned, and it will allow them to maintain or regain their body condition on less feed. Cows entering the winter season in good body condition are the cheapest cows to over-winter. This will result in substantial feed savings and reduced costs for the cattle enterprise.


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