How creep feeding works
While concentrates provided to beef calves prior to weaning, also referred to as “creep feeding”, can make a significant difference to economic returns, there are certain nuances to be aware of to ensure the highest performance and efficiency.
Creep feeding involves supplying supplemental feed (usually concentrates) to the nursing calf. A creep feeder is used for the calf, which prevents other cows accessing the supplemental feed.
Milk from a lactating beef cow only gives about 50 percent of the nutrients required by a young calf for full growth. For a calf to fulfill its potential, additional nutrients must come from somewhere else. The most economic source would be high quality pasture; this can be a problem for spring-calving herds though, and the shift from milk to grass could well come at a time when the availability of fresh high quality grass is limited. If quality grass is lacking, creep feeding should certainly be considered.
The potential benefits
Depending on conditions (including type of feed, genetics of the calf, and season) the average increase in weaning weight for a creep fed calf is 18 kg, with 10 to 27 kg being the common range. This also removes grazing pressure on available pasture, and accustoms calves to grain so that they wean more easily. During the “hungry calf gap” – in which the milk available from the beef cow dwindles, while the milk required by the calf increases – feed can be used to ensure all the right nutrients are available.
Figure 1: Milk yield of a typical beef cow vs nutrient requirements of a nursing calf
So far, the evidence for the benefits of creep feeding are hard to argue with. Still, it’s not an immediate catch-all solution. While it can have excellent benefits in certain circumstances, the viability and economic return need to be considered.
For example, some producers might be averse to the cost of investing in the extra feed and delivery system. To ensure that the calf doesn’t get too fleshy – and therefore possibly discounted by buyers – creep feeding does require monitoring to ensure feed is restricted to 0.5-1kg a day.
The investment vs the returns
So, is creep feeding worth the investment? The cost of the feed must be weighed up against the weight gained in the calf – also taking into account the initial purchase of a feeder, weather conditions, and the type of feed used. For example, Alan Medd, at a UK beef unit in Darlington, ran an experiment with creep-feeding one spring, using his own feed comprised of home-grown cereals, soya hulls and meal, and pot-ale syrup. The calves achieved an extra 100kg by weaning (at nine months) compared with those later in the year, representing a 4:1 return on investment for bulls, and 3:1 for heifers. The figures came out in Mr Medd’s favor; whether they will for you requires investigation of your system and end market.
When selecting creep rations, it’s important to consider cost, as well as palatability and nutrient content/quality. Supplements can increase the benefits of creep feeding, such as Digestarom®, an innovative phytogenic feed additive from BIOMIN, which combines the biologically active effects of phytogenic substances with unique flavoring properties. These two main properties of Digestarom® encourage feed intake, support digestion and more efficient nutrient utilization, and optimize feed efficiency and performance.
Is creep feeding right for you?
Creep feeding calves can give a much needed boost to the productivity of your herd. If it’s economically viable, the advantages could well give you a much needed edge in performance. With a relatively small adjustment to farm management, it’s possible to implement a program whose rewards far outweighs the cost.