By: Mike Boersma, Extension Educator & 4-H Program Director, Murray & Pipestone Counties
Creep feeding can be a good way to provide supplemental nutrients to calves in a time when their demands are growing rapidly. The process usually involves allowing calves access to feed or additional high quality forage with fences that exclude the rest of the cow herd. When done correctly, creep feeding provides an extra boost of nutrition for the calves without adding stress to the pasture or additional nutritional demands on the cows.
Creep feeding can be a controversial topic among beef producers, as some feel that the effects of creep feeding are not economical and can even be detrimental to the future of the calves, while other producers feel that creep-fed calves will be heavier, healthier, and transition better to the feedlot setting. Both of these views are correct in certain circumstances.
First, creep feeding isn't always economical. In years when feed prices are high relative to calf prices, it may not make sense to spend the extra money on feed if the returns are low. Also, if you have high-milking cows with enough available forage, it is not usually economical to creep feed because the added calf weight can be gained through healthy cows.
Therefore, creep feeding spring-born calves in May and early June will not have much benefit for the average producer, since forage is usually plentiful and cows should still have adequate milk production to raise their calves. Creep feeding becomes more advantageous for spring-born calves later in the summer when forage growth and milk production decline or in early summer for producers who calve in January and February since these calves are older and their mothers' milk production is declining.
Finally, it is not advisable to creep feed early-maturing, smaller framed calves, especially on a high energy diet. This will cause the calves to gain unwanted fat and will result in low performing cattle in a feedlot situation. This is especially true for heifer calves to be kept for replacement. There are many research studies that prove high fat levels on future replacement heifers at a young age could severely hinder their ability to become productive, functional cows in the future.
On the other hand, creep feeding is a definite advantage when feed prices are low relative to calf prices. Also, in dry years when pasture production is low or when cows are not producing much milk, it is a good idea to provide supplemental nutrition to the calves. This will not only benefit the calves, but also the cows since the calves will likely be eating creep feed instead of grazing on the limited grass the cows desperately need. The pasture will also benefit through reduced grazing pressure.
Calves out of young cows will also benefit from creep feed. These cows usually produce less milk and have a higher energy requirement themselves since they are still growing. Creep feeding these calves will also keep the young mothers in better condition which will help the cows to breed back sooner for the following year.
Finally, purebred cattle producers will likely experience more benefit from creep feeding. The added feed will increase weaning weights and overall bloom to the calves, which will generally bring a premium price when sold as young bulls or replacement females.
So, as you contemplate whether or not to creep feed your calves, keep in mind that there isn't always a simple answer. What is economical for your neighbor's herd may not benefit your own operation. Consider your goals and expectations before creep feeding and make sure the economics are in your favor. In order to spend the extra money on feed, there should be a plan to capture that value back when the calves are marketed.