December 2014
Feeding Facts

My Answer to an Ongoing Debate

As I consider each month what topic to discuss, I try to pick one that seems to be debated every year and try to give my logical explanation for my opinion. Recently, I was in a discussion with a group of cattlemen who had differing opinions of whether or not to supply creep feed to cattle. To further complicate the issue: if you decide to creep calves what feed do you use? So, as you see, the matter can get quite confusing.

First, let’s settle the debate on whether or not one should creep feed calves. Currently, weaned calves that have been through a proper backgrounding program are worth $2.50 per pound. With a high-quality creep feed, one can expect that it will take 4 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of gain. For this argument’s sake, however, let’s assume it takes 6 pounds to get that pound of gain. The cost of our high-quality creep feed is $354 per ton or $.177 per pound. Therefore, it costs $1.06 to put on 1 pound of gain. When you sell that calf, each pound of gain added will net you $1.44. If, hypothetically, you add 50 extra pounds by creep feeding, then you have added $72 profit per head, just by creep feeding. So, on a 50 head herd, you have paid for the cost of a 3-ton capacity creep feeder in one year.

Skeptics will say that this huge advantage disappears as cattle prices go down. While the difference would decrease, as long as the price of cattle stays above the cost per pound of gain, additional profits would be realized. So, in order to calculate additional profits, always consider the cost of gain versus the price per pound received for the cattle being marketed. This relationship is the best indicator of profitability.

Since we have decided that in many cases creep feeding is a profitable endeavor, we must now decide what, when, where and how we are going go about supplying this supplemental nutrition.

The simplest way to deliver creep feed is in a gated feeder. These feeders come in various sizes and are gated to allow only the calves to have access to the feed. This can also be accomplished by using a small lot and creep gate to allow only the calves to enter the lot and simply feed them in troughs.

Where seems to be an odd question, but another method to creep feed is to creep graze. Lush ryegrass, clovers, wheat and sorghum/sudan hybrids are all very good sources of creep feed. If you have the ability, install a creep gate so only calves can access these forages. They are an effective and economical choice for increasing weaning weight in your herd.

When should I start creep feeding? Most calves usually don’t start looking for supplemental nutrition until they are about a month in age. At this time, the milk provided by the cow can’t totally satisfy the calf’s nutritional demand for maximum growth. As the calf grows and matures, its reliance on the cow for nutrition decreases. By the time a calf reaches 400 pounds (4-5 months), only about 20 percent of its nutritional requirements are satisfied by its mother. Since most calves are weaned at about 7 months, creep feeding can significantly enhance growth pre-weaning.

The feed you use in your creep feeder or in your feed bunks depends greatly on the genetics of the cattle being fed. You should also consider the level of performance desired and the way the cattle will be marketed. In earlier articles, I discussed the importance of developing a program and sticking with it. If you plan to retain ownership of these cattle, the very efficient growth obtained at earlier ages is worth taking advantage of because the pounds go on at a lesser cost. If you are selling the cattle at weaning, one must consider the calves don’t need to be too fleshy and possibly discounted at the market. So determine your marketing plan and choose one of the Co-op feeds that meet the requirements of your plan. If cattle are going to be marketed at weaning, choose a higher protein feed with less energy to promote lean tissue and frame growth to gain the advantage of higher weights and maximum price.

Though not all the schools of thought have been covered, this gives you a general idea of the factors to use when deciding whether or not to creep feed calves. Generally, creep feeding increases profits or decreases losses and allows cattle to reach their full genetic potential. In my opinion, purebred operations should definitely creep feed to allow cattle to maximize their individual genetic potential.

Finally, set your goals, choose a feed that helps you meet those goals and feed it to your cattle to increase the success of each of your operations. A friend once told me you can choose a wagon or a pickup – both will get you to your destination.

Stephen Donaldson is AFC’s animal nutritionist.