Creep Feeding Calves
Greg Lardy, Head, Animal Sciences
Creep feeding is a means of providing supplemental nutrients to nursing calves, usually in the form of grain, protein supplements, commercial calf creeps, or high quality forages. Calves are usually allowed access through a gate large enough to allow calves to enter but small enough to restrict access by cows. Creeps vary from grains to "creep grazing" high quality forages to limit-fed protein supplements.
Analysis of whether or not to creep feed is a complex issue. Several factors which need consideration before making the decision to creep feed include:
- Calf prices and the effects of added calf weight and condition (fleshiness) on calf sale prices.
- Feed prices.
- Forage availability and forage quality.
- Conversion efficiencies of creep feeds to added weaning weight.
- Availability of labor.
- Plans for retained ownership.
- Length of time calves will be creep fed.
What is economical on one farm or ranch may not be economical on another. Producers should carefully evaluate the objectives of the individual operation before deciding whether or not to creep feed. Likewise, what is economical in one year may not be economical in another.
Advantages of Creep Feeding
- Weaning weights are increased. Producers can expect 30 to 60 pounds of added gain with creep feeding. It usually takes 8 to 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of added gain. However, feed conversions (pounds of creep per pound of added gain) can range from 5:1 to 30:1 with grain based creep feeds.
- Calves which have been creep fed usually suffer less setback at weaning and tend to adapt to feedlot rations quicker than calves which have not been creep fed.
- Milk is an important source of nutrients for the nursing calf. Herds with low milk production or high numbers of first-calf heifers or aged cows may benefit the most from creep feeding.
- Calves with above average growth potential will respond better to creep feeding. Likewise, bull calves will respond better than steer or heifer calves.
Disadvantages of Creep Feeding
- Creep feeding generally will not pay, if calves will be wintered or backgrounded on low energy diets before going to summer grass as yearlings.
- The calf price relative to feed price ratio does not always favor creep feeding.
- For producers planning to retain ownership, much of the value of creep feeding may be masked by compensatory growth of non-creep fed calves. Calves which do not receive creep feed will catch up or compensate after weaning if given access to a good quality backgrounding or feedlot ration. Studies at the Dickinson Research Center indicated that slaughter weights were similar for creep and non-creep fed calves, even though creep fed calves had a 24-pound advantage in weaning weight.
- Genetic differences in maternal milking ability may be masked. Creep feeding tends to minimize differences in weaning weight. Calves from cows with poor milking ability may consume more creep, reducing differences in weaning weight and hindering the ability of the producer to identify and cull poor producing cows.
- Creep feeding which results in excess fattening of replacement heifers will be detrimental to future productivity of replacement heifers. Indiana research indicates that replacement heifers which were creep fed as calves produce calves which are lighter at weaning than their non-creep fed counterparts. Oklahoma research also indicates that the number of calves a cow weans in a lifetime is reduced when the cow was creep fed as a heifer.
A common misconception is that creep feeding will reduce nursing pressure on the cow. However, research data from Oklahoma and Nebraska indicate that milk intake by creep and non-creep fed calves is similar. Calves prefer milk first, highly palatable creep second, and forage third. When milk and forage are available, creep feed becomes a substitute for forage. This may be advantageous only when forage supplies need to be stretched.
Types of Creep Feeds
- Grain-based Creep. Grain can be creep fed alone. When an adequate amount of good to high quality forage is available, conversions will usually not be economical. Acceptable conversions (5:1 to 10:1) of grain-based creep feed are usually obtained during periods of low forage quality or limited forage quantity.
- Limit-Fed High Protein Creep Feeds. Calf gains can be increased by limit feeding high-protein feedstuffs such as soybean meal, cottonseed meal, or blends of treated soybean meal and feather meal which are relatively high in undegraded intake protein (escape protein). Oklahoma and Nebraska research data indicate that nursing calves respond favorably to high-protein supplements. Feed conversions ranged from 2.25:1 to 3:1. Providing calves with 0.88 pounds of cottonseed meal resulted in calves which were 38 pounds heavier at weaning and had conversions of 2.79 pounds of creep feed per pound of added gain. These calves were creep fed for 120 days. Intake should be limited to about one pound per day or feed conversions will be much poorer. Intake can be limited by including 10 to 15 percent salt in the creep feed. Salt is corrosive to metal creep feeders. Wood, plastic, or rubber feeders are more acceptable for feeding salt-limited creep feeds.
- Green Creep. High quality forages can be used as "green" creep feeds. Generally fields adjacent to pastures which the cow-calf pairs will graze are planted to annual forages and calves are allowed access through creep gates. Creep gates allow calves to enter but restrict cow access. Research indicates that high-quality green creep will result in increases in weaning weight similar to grain-based creep feeds. As a general rule, 6 to 10 calves can be creep fed on one acre of small grain or annual forage pasture.
- Commercial Creep Feeds. Many different commercial creep feeds are available and can give excellent results. Commercial formulations generally include vitamins and minerals as well as medications and feed additives which may increase efficiency. Pelleted creep feeds will generally result in increased consumption since dust and fines are less of a problem as compared with ground feeds.
Locating the Creep Feeder
Place the creep feeder in an area which will be frequented by the cow herd. Locating the feeder near watering areas or areas where cows normally loaf will ensure that calves are exposed to the feeder. Calves generally will not leave their mothers even for the most palatable creep feed. Providing salt and mineral for the cows in the same location can also help attract the herd to the area.
Allow 3 to 4 inches of feeder space per calf. Ten feet of feeder space will handle 30 to 40 calves. Plans for construction of creep feeders can be purchased from county extension offices. Ask for the Beef Housing and Equipment Handbook (Part of the Beef Cattle Handbook).
Commercially built creep feeders can be purchased from feed dealers, lumber yards, and livestock equipment companies.