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Creep-feeding calves: A controversial practiceCreep-feeding calves: A controversial practice

Artificially propping up weaning weights could have long-term consequences.

6 Min Read
Weaned calves
Creep pens allow calves to access the trough but not cows.Dave Bohnert

Creep feeding has been commonly utilized by producers who feel that their calves need more nutrition than pasture can provide—especially on a dry year--or their dams can provide via milk. Eric Bailey, State Extension Beef Specialist, University of Missouri, says most cow-calf producers think they need to maximize weaning weight. “When forage quality declines they feel calves need something extra,” Bailey says.

People build creep gates or pens that calves can get into to access feed, and the cows cannot. This strategy is often used by seedstock producers, to produce nice-looking calves that have a head start on growth to become saleable young bulls or heifers.

This artificially props up weaning weights (which look better on a calf’s record) with long creep-feeding periods, but this can be detrimental, especially to heifers. Those big, bloomy heifers often have too much fat in their young udders, and fat displaces the developing mammary tissue. This can affect milk production the rest of their lives: they never milk as well as they would have without the fat.

“In general, most producers creep feed for about 60 to 90 days before weaning. Any shorter time than that doesn’t make much difference in weaning weight; research suggests that it takes calves 30 days to figure out what creep feed is, before they start eating very much of it,” says Bailey. 

Some producers creep feed for a few weeks before weaning, thinking that by learning how to eat grain the weaning transition will be easier, since the calves will know how to eat the feed offered at weaning and maybe won’t go off feed so much when suddenly taken away from the cows.

“This isn’t necessarily helpful, however,” Bailey says. “I studied easing weaning transitions in graduate school.  In our study we weaned some calves on pasture and hand fed them while we were preconditioning them, versus just putting them in a dry-lot and feeding a total mixed ration. We quantified the impacts of those two practices, looking at feed consumption early in the feedlot period, and the proportion of calves that were at the bunk, and found no differences in the two groups.” 

Feeding calves at pasture didn’t get them to the bunk any faster than the ones without that prior experience.

Not the same ration

People assume that creep-fed calves know what feed is and know what a bunk is. “But creep feed is not the same ration they will be fed after weaning, and it’s definitely not the same facility.” They still have to learn something new, and cattle are naturally suspicious and hesitant to try things they are unfamiliar with.  If it’s not something they learned to eat with mom, they may take a while to try it.

“I always look at economics, and how much it costs to creep feed compared to how much money it might make. From a biological perspective, it makes sense to supply creep feed for early-weaned calves. I’ve measured feed efficiency—in a commercial production setting and a research setting—with calves weaned early. The pounds of feed required to put a pound of gain on lightweight calves is amazingly low compared to what it is in a feedlot for backgrounders and especially for finishers,” Bailey says.

“When a producer hears a feed salesman say it will only take 5 or 6 pounds of feed to get a pound of gain on calves, this doesn’t take all factors into consideration. If you look at peer-reviewed research, that number is usually 8 to 10 pounds of feed for every pound of gain. This changes the math,” he explains. On a year like this, however, with high cattle prices, it might pay—if the cost of feed is relatively cheap.

Creep feeding is probably not a viable practice from an economic standpoint, unless calf prices are high. “Even then, it doesn’t take into account the risk of discounts because the calves are too fleshy.” Buyers want calves with frame that will readily put on gain; they don’t overly fleshy calves that are already too fat.

The feed is often more expensive than people realize. “It’s common to see creep feed priced at $400 per ton when commodities are $300 per ton, because this is a value-added product from feed companies—a special mix for calves. At 20 cents per pound, if it takes 8 pounds of feed per pound of gain, that’s $1.60.”

Bailey doesn’t feel creep feeding is beneficial. “In a paper published in the Journal of Animal Science about 17 years ago the researchers evaluated creep feeding and its impact on cow and calf performance. They did two studies. One was in a pasture setting where they looked at cow body condition score, amount of creep feed given, amount of weight gain on the calves, etc.”

They creep fed calves in different ways—one group not at all, and the other groups for 28, 56 or 84 days. “In all cases, the cow body condition scores were no different at weaning. A misconception that I often hear is that you should creep feed to spare some body condition on the cows,” he says. People feel that if the calf has another source of feed it won’t need as much milk or eat as much pasture, but that’s not the case. Whatever milk the cow produces, the calf will consume, and the amount of pasture the calf might not consume is negligible; it won’t save pasture for the cow.

Calves’ intake measured

“The authors of that paper did a follow-up study in which they put pairs in pens and measured calves’ intake of forage as well as the creep feed they had access to. They also measured milk production of the cows. Essentially when you creep feed, the calf is offered three sources of feed—milk from the cow, forage from pasture, and grain. To help the cow regain or not lose body condition while lactating, hypothetically the calf would have to be drinking less milk.” But until he is weaned, the calf consumes everything his dam produces.

“In this experiment, when calves were offered creep feed, milk production on the cow never changed. Forage consumption of the calf did change. It was hay, in this experiment, rather than pasture (so it could be measured). The calf still ate a couple pounds of hay; it wasn’t that much of a difference,” Bailey says.

“Producers often think saving forage—that the calf is not eating—should benefit the cow.  But the amount of forage you might save by creep feeding is small.” It probably won’t be significant enough to benefit cows at pasture. In most situations, the benefits of creep feeding are greatly overshadowed by the drawbacks and disadvantages.

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