How Creep Feeding Can Help Beef Calves

Creep feeding is the managerial practice of supplying supplemental feed (usually concentrates) to the nursing calf. Feed is provided in a creep feeder or some type of physical barrier, which prevents cows from having access to the supplemental feed. Milk from a lactating beef cow furnishes only about 50 percent of the nutrients that a 3–4-month-old calf needs for maximum growth. The remaining nutrients must come from elsewhere if the calf is to realize its genetic potential for growth. High quality pasture is the best and most economical source of required nutrients during this period of insufficient nutrient intake. Unfortunately, in spring-calving beef herds, the shift from “milk to grass” to meet the nutrient requirements of young beef calves frequently comes at a time when quality pastures are not available. If high quality pasture is inadequate or unavailable, supplemental creep feeding may be a viable alternative.

The Need for Creep Feeding

Creep feeding the nursing calf increases subsequent rate of gain and weaning weight. These responses are related to the lactational curve of beef cows, the decline in pasture or feed quality and quantity needed to support the cow/calf pairs, and the increasing nutrient requirements of the calf during the nursing period. Studies have revealed that maximum milk production of beef cows occurs during the first two months after calving and then declines. By contrast, milk production of dairy cows increases up to 120-180 days following parturition and then decreases gradually. The energy and protein requirements of a growing calf increase well beyond the milking potential of most beef cows to meet the nutritional requirements of calves from birth to weaning.

For example, 10 lbs. of milk are required by a 100 lb. calf to meet its daily energy and protein requirements for growth, whereas a 500 lb. calf needs 50 lbs. of milk. Since the average beef cow produces approximately 13 lbs. of milk daily throughout a 205-day suckling period, a 500 lb. calf is short-changed by 40 lbs. from getting enough milk from its dam at this lactational stage to meet its nutritional needs.

The best way to fulfill the “hungry calf gap” is to creep feed or creep graze. It should be noted that the rumen starts to develop functionally as soon as roughage is consumed, but time is required before it is completely functional. Nursing calves (consuming roughage) begin ruminating at about three months of age; however, if only milk and concentrate feeds are consumed, the rumen develops considerably slower. Fulfilling the energy and protein requirements over and above that provided by the average milk production (13 lbs.) of a beef cow would require the daily consumption of 50 lbs. of grass pasture (average quality) by the nursing calf. Unfortunately, the rumen of a 500 lb. calf cannot accommodate that much roughage. However, a high energy, supplemental concentrate can satisfy the nutritionally deficient nursing calf.

Advantages of Creep Feeding
  • Provides a way to fill the “hungry calf gap”.
  • Improves weaning weight and rate of gain.
  • Compensates for low milk production.
  • Facilitates fall-calving.
  • Improves calf uniformity.
  • Enhances merchandising program by adding bloom and weight to calves.
  • Provides calves that are bunk broke.
  • Provides market flexibility.
  • Simplifies weaning.
  • Aids in controlling parasites.
  • Leaves cows in better body condition.
Disadvantages of Creep Feeding
  • May not be economical.
  • May impair future milk production of replacement heifers.
  • Interferes with selection of cows for milk production.
  • May produce fleshy calves with a price discount.
  • May lower feedlot gain and efficiency.
  • Can be difficult in remote areas.
  • Impossible with companion grazers, such as sheep or goats.

Provided by Dan E. Eversole, Extension Animal Scientist, Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension

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