Will Creep Feeding put extra pounds on your calves before fall?

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By Krista Connick Todd, Livestock Specialist

With amazing prices predicted for this fall, many producers are considering using pre-weaning supplementation, or “creep feeding”, to take advantage of every dollar. Will it put additional pounds on your calves this summer? The answer depends on several variables.

The most important question is: What condition is your pasture in? By the time calves are three to four months old milk is supplying only about half of the nutrition they need and they must therefore rely on forage for additional nutrition. Unfortunately this is also the time that grass production and quality begins to decline, particularly on tame pastures. Low quality pastures cannot meet calves nutritional needs for maximum growth, and calves would benefit from supplementation. If you have good quality pasture still available, or plan to move pairs to fresh native grass at this time, creep feeding will not likely produce noticeable benefits.

The other question to consider is how much your cows are milking. Most calves prefer milk and will nurse to capacity before beginning to graze or eat creep feed. Calves from heavy milking cows will show less benefit than calves from lower milking cows.  

What should you use for creep feed? Rations can be created depending on which grains you have available – oats, barley, peas, and lentil screenings all make good creep feed rations. Whole or rolled grains are usually more palatable than finely ground grains. Adding a small amount of molasses or oil to the mix will increase palatability, decrease dust, and reduce separation of the different grains. Feed efficiency improves when using high-protein supplements. The typical average daily gain (ADG) for calves from birth to weaning is 1.75 to 2.75 pounds per day. ADG increases as protein levels in the diet increase. In pastures where forage quality may be low, 16 per cent protein would be recommended, with an energy content of 65 to 70 per cent total digestible nutrients (TDN). A ration based on oats is a good choice if you are planning to keep replacement heifers from your calf crop. High energy rations can cause too much fat to be deposited within the udder and around reproductive organs, affecting future milk production and performance. Avoid pre-mixed rations with urea, and consider your balance of calcium to phosphorus when creating your ration. Don’t forget about the vitamins – A, D, and E!

How do you control intake?  Adding salt to your ration can limit intake. Depending on the grains you are feeding, eight to 10 per cent salt in the ration should keep calves from overeating and prevent acidosis (changes in the rumen acid level, leading to reduced production and sometimes even death). Start low and increase salt levels gradually as calves adjust to the idea of creep feeding.

Is supplementing cost effective? Efficiency varies according to the type of ration.   Ionophores and implants may improve creep-feeding efficiency. Under ideal circumstances, creep feeding will certainly increase weaning weights, up to 60 pounds or more. Generally, significant improvements in calf performance require at least 60 days of creep feeding.  Compare feed costs to the predicted calf prices per pound. For more information on the economics of creep feeding, check out the Creep Feeding Calculator on www.ForageBeef.ca.

Considering creep feeding? This might be the perfect year to try it. Contact the Regional Livestock Specialist at your local Ministry of Agriculture office for more information on ration formulation and whether creep feeding is a good fit for your operation. 

Organizations: Ministry of Agriculture

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