CREEP feeding calves is one strategy beef producers can use to improve the performance of their cow herds and overall profitability of their cattle businesses.
On a purely physiological level, creep feeding works because it provides better nutrition to growing calves, which increases their weight and dollar value at weaning.
It also profoundly reduces the pressure on lactating females, meaning that breeders can more easily be brought back into calf for the next season.
In addition, the strategy potentially produces a more uniform, heavier batch of calves as it compensates for cows with reduced lactational capabilities.
Creep feeding is also a strategy that can be used to bring forward weaning and to preserve pasture.
Does it pay?
More kilograms of calf to sell at weaning certainly increases revenue, but the question is does it increase profit?
To be profitable, the costs of the added weight gain must obviously be less than the value of that gain.
Many factors contribute to a calf's weaning weight, including nutrition, genetics, age at weaning and environmental conditions.
However, it is possible that creep feeding may be economically viable while overall profitability is negative.
The question is whether or not creep feeding pays for the added costs.
If creep feeding decreases the physical pressure on the cow and her milk production, presumably the feed needed by the cow will be reduced. In addition, this may enhance the cow's body condition and all important reproductive performance.
Factors that should be evaluated include the cost of the feed, expected efficiency of gain based on the type of feed, the difference in value at marketing considering the price variations and forage conditions, time and cost needed to set up self feeders with creep gates and the expense needed to fill it.
What calves eat
The dietary preference for a calf is to be milk, then creep feed followed by forage.
When forage quality is low, creep feeding can make a bigger difference in weight gain because the feed is much higher in energy than the forage.
Conversely, when forage quality is very high, creep feeding may only have a minimal impact on gain. Both the quality and quantity of the forage available are critical in animal performance.
If drought is limiting the quantity of forage available to the cow and, subsequently limiting milk production, then creep feeding will help the calf to perform.
As the amount of milk produced by the female decreases over time, and forage quality declines as it matures, it becomes increasingly difficult for the cow to meet the calf's nutritional requirements.
Decreases in forage quality (energy and protein) or quantity creates insufficient nutrients for optimum gain. In these situations, creep feeding may be a viable option. The same applies for first-calf heifers and older cows, which may not produce enough milk.
The best feed
Selecting the optimal creep-feed is critical for the best economic benefit.
The two most common types of creep feeds used are energy (the most common) or protein creep feeds. Both can be mixed on the farm or purchased.
The creep feed ration must be energy and protein dense, because the rumen of the calf is small. A calf cannot physically eat a large amount of feed. Additionally, it is vital that the feed is palatable.
What's the cost
Soybean meal, canola meal, calf pellets, or a commercial protein supplement are all potential creep feeds.
Commercially available, nutritionally balanced, creep feeds in a pellet form can be more convenient, allow the opportunity to include rumen and gut health feed additives and often will be of similar or lower cost to those made up on the farm.
Indicative costs of a premium balanced calf feed will be about $1100/tonne.
Data suggests that the feed to gain conversion with creep feeds average 6:1. Over a 150 day period a calf will consume 0.6-1kg/head/day and typically gain 90-120g more a day compared to non-creep fed calves.
On these figures the total cost of feed consumed will be between $50 and $90 for a 100-150 day feeding program.
Producers can average 15-35kg/calf of added gain with creep feeding, particularly on large-frame, good-quality steers with a lot of growth potential.
On current high prices for young stock, this is a $75 to $150 increase in calf value at weaning.