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Is Creep Feeding Calves Right for You?

By Bill Halfman

With cattle prices at record highs and favorable feed prices, producers are likely considering creep feeding their beef calves to add additional pounds.

Creep feeding provides supplemental feed to nursing beef calves in an area that the cows can’t access. It is common for creep feed to consist of grains, protein supplements and limiters, but many other feed sources can be used as creep. The feed may be an on-farm mix or a commercial feed of various types, and usually is fed using a creep feeder.

Whether creep feeding will pay off is more complex than just adding pounds to calves; many factors come into play. Research results over the years have been mixed. It is important to evaluate numerous factors, including production goals, environmental conditions and market endpoint, to determine if creep feeding will ultimately aid profitability.

Here are initial questions to ask:

  • How will calves be managed and sold after weaning?
  • What is the quantity and quality of the feed sources calves have access to?
  • What is the anticipated cost of gain from creep feeding?

Here are some scenarios where creep feeding may not be profitable, even with current cattle and feed prices:

Pastures are well-managed. If forage quality and quantity is high, calves may not benefit from additional nutrition. Calves that have high-milking mothers and access to high-quality forage may add extra flesh (fat) that could result in discounts when marketing as feeder calves.

Forage availability and cow condition are concerns. Low forage supply due to drought is not conducive to creep feeding. A common misconception is that creep feeding reduces calves’ milk consumption. Because calves’ order of preference for food is milk, creep feed, then the forage source, creep feeding doesn’t result in less demand on the cow for milk. A better option both economically and for the long-term benefit of the cows and calves would be to wean the calves early.

Heifers are being kept as replacements. Long-term research has shown creep-fed heifers produced less milk, weaned lighter calves and were less productive their entire lives compared to heifers that weren’t creep-fed.

Farm is retaining ownership of calves. If you are retaining ownership of the calves to either background or grow and finish, creep feeding is not a profitable strategy. Research has shown that calves not creep-fed will catch up in size to the creep-fed calves by compensatory gain.

Some situations where creep feeding may prove to be profitable in the current environment are:

  • When selling as feeder calves shortly after weaning, like after preconditioning for a short time and the pasture quality is low, there will be more pounds of calf to sell.
  • Higher-energy creep feeds, like starch and fat, have been shown to help increase marbling that is realized at harvest when calves are transitioned to finishing rations shortly after weaning.

To capture this value, calves need to be sold through a channel where the producer will realize the benefits of the improved marbling — for example, on a grid. Using this approach, smaller-framed cattle may finish at a lighter weight than what the market is seeking compared to putting them on a grower ration for a time.

For large-framed cattle, this may not be a problem. If you are direct-marketing meat and can capitalize on the higher quality grades, lighter weight at finish is likely of less concern.

In summary, creep-feeding beef calves is not a one-size-fits-all management decision. The best choice may not even be the same from year to year. When making the decision to creep or not creep, it is important to consider the marketing plan, the quality and quantity of forage available to the calves, and costs of gains to determine if it has strong potential for being profitable.

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