Calves enjoy creep feeding

Start calves on creep feed as soon as possible to avoid digestive upsets.

With many producer’s cows safely calved out and the youngsters looking sleek and shiny, a normal question is how to keep them healthy and growing through a long hot summer.

Hopefully they have been sent off to pasture equipped with necessary vaccinations, vitamin injections and clostridial shots for blackleg strain diseases. Those will fight against illness and help deliver calves in good health and condition through the weaning process. Basic concerns calves will face before that time arrives include foot rot, pink eye, bloat and pneumonia. Treatment drugs will need to be stocked to respond to those possible situations.

But another piece of the puzzle to assist in warding off potential problems further down the road is creep feeding. Creep feeding is the practice of providing supplemental feed – grain or forage – to nursing calves. That’s usually done with the use of a creep gate, which is large enough for calves to enter the feeding area but too small to allow cows to pass. A lactating beef cow can supply only 50 percent of the nutrients a three- to four-month-old calf needs to maximize growth, according to University of Georgia-Extension. Depending on availability and quality, forage may not be able to supply the other 50 percent of nutrients the calf needs. Nutrient deficiency is more pronounced when calves graze late-summer or drought-stricken pastures, and during the winter when no grazing is available.

The goal of creep feeding must be decided, if it’s to be profitable and worthwhile for the producer, calves and cows. Decide if it’s meant to supplement grass in good environmental conditions, replace grass in poor quality, or address weight gain and health-related matters.

If the goal is strictly weight gain, CHS Southwest Grain nutrition consultant Dustin Elkins said studies have shown calves will add an additional 70 to 100 pounds when offered creep feed for four to eight weeks prior to weaning. A producer may wish to supplement the growing calf’s energy, trace-mineral and salt requirements to help build stronger immune systems and better rumen function post-weaning. Or the producer might want to allow the calf to become accustomed to eating from a trough or bunk, which may help reduce the stress of the weaning process. No matter the reasons, they tie back into the two original considerations of grass supplement or replacement – and can add value to each of a producer’s desired goals.

Karl Hoppe, a livestock specialist with North Dakota State University-Extension, recommends producers start calves on creep feed as soon as possible to avoid digestive upsets.

“I’m always concerned when pastures become over-grazed and then creep feed is introduced,” he said. “This can lead to extremely high intakes of creep feed and result in sickness and possible death.”

That potential risk makes it essential that feeders don’t run empty, because calves may over-eat when the feeders are filled.

A healthy young calf is at its peak for feed efficiency and conversion, reaching three times that of a cow. That means it’s much more cost-effective to feed a calf than a poorly conditioned cow in fall or winter. Thus while creep feeding should become a routine practice, it should also enable fluidity as a management decision dependent on market and environmental conditions.

Rations and ingredients are key.

“If the pasture condition is good to exceptional, be sure to use a creep feed that is formulated to supplement grass, rather than replace grass,” Hoppe said.

A nutritious well-balanced free-choice feed should contain 14 percent to16 percent crude protein that is full of fiber and well-fortified with vitamins and minerals. It should also have an ionophore such as Rumensin or Bovatec to enhance feed efficiency, limit over-eating and prevent coccidiosis.

A focused creep-feeding system will prove to be beneficial and cost-effective. It should be backed by a well-structured vaccination program, basic treatment drugs, infrastructure and facilities. Although variable from operation to operation – and heavily dependent on environmental conditions and price variations from year to year – with calculated and focused decisions risks can be minimized.

The economics of all factors should be assessed before starting a program. But the potential returns of reduced weaning stress and improved health, added weight gains and nutritional benefits can easily tip the scales in favor of a well-thought-out and managed creep-feeding program.

Bruce Derksen has worked in western Canada’s agricultural industry for more than 30 years. He and his wife live in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada, where he manages logistics at a nearby chemical plant. In his spare time he writes about agricultural-related topics, giving producers up-to-date information about the future of the ag industry.