MU Extension specialist: Questions about creep feeding calves don't have simple answers
When weather patterns follow a dry summer cycle and pastures deteriorate, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialists start getting questions about whether creep feeding nursing calves is worthwhile.
“Honestly, there is not a simple, yes-no, answer to that question. We Extension folks have to often say, ‘it depends’ then explain,” said Eldon Cole, a livestock specialist with MU Extension.
Creep feeding is the practice of supplying supplemental feed (usually concentrates) to the nursing calf. Feed is provided in a creep feeder or some type of physical barrier, which prevents cows from having access to the supplemental feed.
Cole notes that feed is not cheap so the payback for the extra 30 to 50 pounds of gain must offset the cost of the extra gain. The amount of feed required to add an extra pound of gain varies from less than 5 to more than 12 pounds.
“The poorer the pasture and the poorer the cows are milking for their calves, the better the conversion rate will be. For years we felt a 7:1 conversion might be a desirable target to help determine when to creep,” Cole said.
First-calf heifers, especially those selected for above average milk EPDs should have a better chance of responding favorably to their calves being creeped. Likewise, old cows that have dropped in milk yield should see their calves respond to creep feed.
Cows running on fescue pasture with endophyte problems would also be candidates to have creep feed available for their calves.
One caution however, creep feeding in unlimited amounts has some negatives. Calves can become too fleshy and buyers may discount them a few dollars per hundred at sale time.
Heifer calves given unlimited creep, tend to be lower milk producers when kept for replacements. The cause is excessive fat deposition in the heifer calf’s udder.
Cole says when pastures allow, it is wise to separate cows with heifer calves from those nursing bulls or steers if creep feeding.
“A limited creep feeding program has merit as the over conditioning problem is reduced, heifers don’t’ get too fleshy and the conversion rate is usually more economical. Many creep feeds are available with intake limiters and low levels, (3 to 10 percent) salt may also be mixed with the concentrate,” Cole said.
Another creep option that some may consider is alfalfa or high quality grass hay. Alfalfa can have over 20 percent crude protein and above 60 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN).
“Most of the grass hays will be lower in nutrient content, but can help boost calf gains. Allowing calves to forward graze in a well-managed grazing system is another alternative,” Cole said.
Cole added that producers on an individual weaning weight evaluation program should be careful to not compare creep feds to non-creep feds. This would give an unfair advantage to the creeped calves.
“Here’s where it’s important to compare the different feed and management groups separately,” Cole said.