Creep feeding is the practice of allowing suckling calves access to supplemental feed to enhance rate of growth. While creep feeding typically will add around 50 pounds of weaning weight, it’s often not cost-effective for commercial cow-calf operations. The exception is when cattle prices are extremely high or feed prices are extremely low.
Feed cost is currently high, but the value of calves is even higher. National cattle inventory is low due to a few years of severe regional drought. It takes several years to build inventory back up and this lack of supply will continue to drive cattle prices. This may be the year to consider creep feeding as a good investment for your calf crop. Here are some factors to consider when making that decision.
The quality of available forage can impact the benefit of creep feeding. When forage quality is low, calves will consume more creep feed. When forage quality is very high, not only will consumption of creep feed be lower, but the amount of added weight gain can be lower. This is because the nutritional value of quality, abundant forage may approach the feed value of the creep, diminishing potential benefit.
Heavy milk production by cows can have a similar impact of reduced benefit from creep feeding. When the cows are providing excellent nutrition, creep feeding has less impact on the rate of gain.
Body Condition of Cows
It is a common misconception that creep feeding will reduce demands on the cow. This is untrue. Calves will always choose milk over creep or forage. Rather than creep feeding, poor body condition in cows should be addressed by improving the quality and quantity of available nutrition for the cows and, if necessary, early weaning. Early weaning can quickly improve body condition in cows, thereby improving reproductive efficiency and milk production the following year.
Prolonged creep feeding can lead to over-conditioning and heavier weaned calves which can lead to market discounts and lower prices per cwt. The reduced price per cwt combined with the cost of feed can lead to diminishing returns.
Creep feeding heifers can lead to excessive condition which impacts future milk production. Heifers that become overconditioned prior to a year of age produce less milk and therefore wean lighter calves.
Seedstock producers have different program goals than commercial cow-calf operators. For seedstock producers, maximizing expression of genetic potential and marketing are prioritized. Therefore, the cost-benefit calculation for creep feeding is more complex than the cost per pound of gain.
With good management, creep feeding can be a practical approach to add value to calves, increasing weight and performance. During your next vet visit, we can help you weigh the pros and cons and discuss how it may fit your operation.