Calf growth rate and weaning weight are important benchmarks in determining performance and profitability of cow/calf enterprises. Weaning weight is dependent on a variety of factors, including calf health, genetic potential, milk production of the dam, and age at weaning. Milk production typically peaks within the first two to three months after calving, and will gradually decline through weaning.
In a 3- to 4-month-old calf, milk will provide only about half the nutrients required for maximum growth. Providing supplemental feed prior to weaning is referred to as “creep feeding”. This practice is commonly utilized to increase weaning weights or reduce grazing pressure by calves in times of limited forage availability, such as during a drought. However, if milk supply and forage availability is adequate, producers may have difficulty getting calves to consume additional supplement, and responses to creep feeding may be poor. Typically, creep feeding should only be considered when reaching appropriate weaning weights is not possible without some type of supplemental feed.
If high quality pasture is available, producers may choose to “creep graze” by allowing calves access to the pasture prior to grazing by mature cows. There are also a variety of supplemental feeds that can be used in creep rations, including pelleted products, grain mixtures, or high protein feeds such as peas or soybean meal. Molasses may be added at the rate of 3 to 5 pounds per 100 pounds of feed to increase palatability and reduce sorting by calves. Large pastures may require feeders in several different areas, and feeders should be placed in areas that are often visited by the herd. A single strand of electric fence around the perimeter of the feeder at 36” to 42” above the ground will restrict access to supplement by mature cattle while allowing calves to pass under the wire. Gates with narrow entrance slots that are made specifically for creep feeders may also be purchased.
If feeding grain, it should be left whole or rolled vs. finely ground. Potential consequences of allowing calves free-choice access to starchy feeds include digestive disturbances such as acidosis, decreased feed efficiency, increased feed costs, and excessive weight gain. Alternatives include limiting supplement intake by offering feed on a daily basis or adding salt. Initially, salt should be included at 2 to 3 percent of the ration to encourage consumption and gradually increased to 8 to 10 percent if necessary to control intake. Producers should closely monitor intake of creep feed and make adjustments if calves are consuming more than 1.5% of body weight. Reports of efficiency for creep feeds range from 4 to 20 pounds of feed required for a pound of gain, with an average of 10. In general, supplements containing more than 20% protein or feeds with high levels of digestible fiber such as wheat midds will improve feed efficiency compared to grains and other starchy feeds. A creep feeding period of at least 60 days is recommended in order to obtain the most efficient gains.
A long-term study was conducted at Purdue University to examine the effects of creep feeding on calf performance and long-term cow productivity. Researchers observed higher weanling and yearling weights in steer calves that were creep-fed compared to calves not receiving creep most years. However, creep feeding of replacement heifers had a negative impact on number of calves weaned per cow, calf birth weight, 120- and 210-day calf weight, and lifetime productivity. This could be attributed to excess condition or fatness that influenced desirable maternal traits such as milk production and reproductive efficiency. Studies evaluating the effects of pre-weaning supplementation on performance and carcass quality during the finishing phase have reported mixed results. In general, increases in body weight are retained throughout the finishing phase. While some researchers have reported that pre-weaning supplementation resulted in increased marbling scores and quality grades of finished cattle, others have found no effect on carcass quality.
In general, expected calf gains range from 40 to 90 pounds over calves not provided with supplemental feed. Breed differences, milk production of the dam, and pasture conditions influence response to creep feeding. While creep feeding may be beneficial for calves from first-calf heifers or older cows with reduced milk production, this practice should not be utilized to compensate for cows with poor producing ability. Some producers may be more likely to consider creep feed when forage quantity or quality is low; however, research indicates that providing creep has little effect on milk intake. Therefore, creep feeding calves does not reduce nutrient requirements of the dam. If adequate facilities are available, a better option may be to wean calves early and feed them separately. Early weaning decreases nutrient requirements of the dam and leads to improvements in body condition and subsequent reproductive performance.
Cost of feed and ability to generate returns over costs are some of the most important considerations when making a decision about whether or not to creep feed. In order for creep feeding to be worthwhile, income from increased weaning weight must exceed the cost of gain. Current market conditions must be evaluated, along with potential discounts associated with selling heavier calves. Forage availability, labor, equipment, and fuel costs are additional factors that may also play a role in choosing an appropriate strategy for a given situation. For additional information including a sample budget and worksheet for calculating creep feeding returns, please refer to the SDSU Extension publication, Creep Feeding Beef Calves.