Understanding the benefits of creep feeding

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Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

The choice to creep feed beef calves or not can be a difficult decision for a cow-calf producer. The reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Cow-calf producers must consider several important variables, all of which will determine if the choice is the correct production and economic one. Creep feeding has both a biological and economic effect and these effects must be considered simultaneously.

The typical cow-calf production system in Ontario involves the rearing of spring-born calves with their dams at pasture for a 6 to 8 month period, at the end of which those calves are weaned and either sold or retained for backgrounding. Creep feed is often introduced to compensate for reduced milk yield from declining forage quality on pasture and ultimately to improve calf weaning weights. Creep feeding is also advocated as a means of reducing weaning stress in calves through the familiarization to a solid and palatable feed and has been shown to decrease morbidity in feedlots.

The type of creep feed to be fed depends on the quality of forage being consumed by the calf. The more indigestible a forage is, the more slowly it digests and the longer it takes to move through the rumen. Highly digestible forages, however, disappear quickly and take up little space in the rumen. Consequently, calves consuming highly digestible forages allowed ad libitum access to creep can consume higher amounts of concentrate. For producers, this observation means that calves consuming high quality forages should be offered a salt-limited high protein calf creep to limit intake, whereas calves consuming poor quality forages should have access to nutrient dense, energy-rich calf creep to compensate for the lower energy available from poorer quality forage.

A study by Lusby et al. (1986) found that limit feeding creep feed to measured daily amounts increased animal performance, gain:feed efficiency, and profitability. Research by Moreil et al. (2017) showed that beef calves limit-fed creep feed gained 0.4 lbs per day more than control calves fed no creep, where both sets of calves grazed similar pasture. These results agree with previous studies.

Overfeeding calves creep feed can lead to the production of heavy, fleshy calves. Buyers typically discount fleshy calves because the plane of nutrition these creep-fed calves have received up to this point is usually greater than the plane of nutrition the calves will be placed on in a backgrounding program. In the feedlot, over-conditioned calves grow slower, are less feed efficient, and cost more to finish compared to calves in ideal condition. This can be a double blow for cow-calf producers selling over-conditioned calves. Sellers incur additional costs associated with creep feed, then may take a lower price compared to those selling calves in ideal condition.

The biological response to creep feed is well understood but the economic response to creep feed is also significant to cow-calf producers as this determines if creep, even in the presence of a known production response, should be fed. The economic response to creep feed depends on the cost of creep, feed efficiency and the potential market price for those calves at the target sale weight at the time of sale. The economics of creep feeding improve as the price of calves increases.

Table 1. Sample calculation to assess the effect of no creep feeding versus creep feeding on price received

No Creep Creep
Weaning Weight (lbs)
500
550
Amount of creep fed (lbs/calf)
0
300
Calf Price ($/lbs)
$2.30
$2.10
Calf Value ($)
$1,100
$1,155
Cost of Creep @ $0.10/lb ($/calf)
$30.00
Profit/Loss from creep feeding ($)
$25.00

Table 1 (above) provides a sample calculation to assess the effect of no creep feeding versus creep feeding on price received. In this case, it was profitable to creep feed as the creep-fed calves were heavier at the time of sale compared to those calves that received no creep, even though the creep fed calves received a lower price per pound.

Consideration of the difference between current average daily gain without creep and the potential increase in average daily gain with creep is critical to determine the true economic response to creep. If the difference between average daily gain without creep and the average daily gain with creep is small, the feeding of creep is unlikely to be profitable unless the cost of the creep feed is low. In this circumstance the feeding of a small amount of grain is beneficial for bunk training and to help reduce the stress of weaning. Creep-fed bull calves have been shown to have a smaller reduction in growth rate post weaning than creep-fed heifers. It has been suggested that this occurs because the larger framed bull calves can use creep more efficiently to lay down more muscle than fat compared to heifers.

Feeding programs that alter the growth rates of animals in one phase of growth often influence the subsequent phase of growth. The effect of creep feeding on post-weaning performance appears to be dependant on the energy intake of calves post -weaning. Creep-fed calves fed to grow at moderate rates of gain (1.5 lbs per day or less) post-weaning tend to grow slower than non-creep fed calves. However, when placed on high energy finishing rations after weaning, calves in good condition that have been effectively creep-fed eat more feed and gain faster during the first month due to the familiarity to solid feed and feeding bunks. Thus, the success of a creep feeding program is dependent on managing intake, creep quality, and calf condition for every grazing season.

References

Jarrige, R., Demarquilly, C., Dulphy, J.P., Hoden, A., Robelin, J., Beranger, C., Geay, Y., Journet, M., Maltere, C., Micol, D., and Petit, M. 1986. The INRA fill unit system for predicting the voluntary intake of forage-based diets in ruminants: a review. Journal of Animal Science, 63: 1737 – 1758Garcia, F., Agabriel, J., and Micol, D. 2007. Alimentation des bovins, ovins et caprins – Besoins des animaux – Valeurs des aliments, INRA 2 Editions. Quare: Versailles, France

Lusby, K.S. 1986. Comparison of limit-fed high protein creep feed and free-choice grain creep for spring born calves on native range. Oklahoma Agr. Exp. Sta Res. MP-118

Lusby, K. 2010. Creep feeding beef calves. Oklahoma Cooperative Ext. Service. Circular E-848.

Viñolesa, C., Jaurenab, M., Barbieria, I., Do Carmob, M., Montossia, F. 2013. Effect of creep feeding and stocking rate on the productivity of beef cattle grazing grasslands. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research, 56: 279-287.

Author: James Byrne, Beef Cattle Specialist, OMAFRA

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