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Teaching calves to eat: 5 benefits of creep feeding

Cody Schneider for Progressive Cattleman Published on 09 August 2018
creep feeding calves

Cow-calf operations today are much like the Wild West of the cattle industry – operating with little direction and few rules. Sure, there are some broad guidelines for things that must be done, but in general, the rules are pretty limited. Each producer manages his or her herd and raises cattle as he or she sees fit.

However, with the influence of the modern-day feedlot customer and food consumer, it appears there is a growing need to “tame the Wild West.” Regardless of segment, the consumer is dictating what is produced and how it is produced by farmers and ranchers.

The cow-calf segment is shifting from more of a commodity-type to a value-added business. This is because, in spite of better vaccines, better treatments and generally better cattle management, death loss continues to climb annually in feedlot and backgrounding operations. At the same time, consumers and regulators are pressuring producers to limit the use of antimicrobials. Ultimately, to reverse this trend of increasing death loss, alternative production practices must occur earlier in a calf’s life before it ever reaches a feedlot.

But how do we better prepare calves for the next stage of life? There is no shortage of suggestions or sources. All attempt to influence how a producer raises his or her calves, yet in many situations calves are still extremely ill-prepared for what they may encounter next. The industry has been talking about preconditioning calves for years, and although the practice can significantly reduce sickness in newly received calves, there is still a lack of widespread adoption. Commercial cow-calf operations are as diverse as the vast landscapes where they operate. Outside of a general dependence on land and forage resources and what they are selling, operations vary greatly. Availability of labor and equipment resources, along with other variables, limits the adoption of certain production practices.

But almost any operation can do more by creep feeding. Creep feeding teaches calves to eat and prepares them for the next stage of production. These five benefits of creep feeding help add value to the calf for the customer in the next segment and improve profitability of the cow-calf operation.

  1. Post-weaning performance: First and foremost, you are teaching cattle to eat. Calves consuming creep feed adapt to the bunk more quickly after weaning and being transported. For this reason, they typically recover weight lost during shipping and transport in a shorter period of time. If cattle are being preconditioned or fed in a backgrounding facility, this can have a dramatic impact on profitability during this stage of production.

  2. Fewer health problems post-weaning: Offering creep feed for the last few weeks before weaning has been shown to reduce the incidence of sickness in newly received feeder cattle. This reduction is probably due to reduced nutritional stress.

  3. Control coccidiosis: Severe coccidia outbreaks can be devastating and lead to additional health problems. Providing a coccidiostat in the creep feed before weaning will help prevent coccidia from being an underlying problem once cattle are weaned.

  4. Increase weaning weight: Creep feeding increases weaning weight, which translates to more pounds of calf to sell. The cost of these extra pounds is highly variable and, as with any expense, must be managed properly. It is imperative that cattle are not allowed to overeat once they get larger and are less dependent on milk. In most cases, creep feed should serve as a supplement to the grass and not as a complete forage replacement. Creep feeding with the correct type of feed is key to profitability.

  5. Insurance: Providing creep feed can be an insurance policy to help reduce variability of weaning weights. Forage quantity and quality can vary dramatically from year to year. If forage is short early on, then milk production may suffer and creep feed can help small calves. Likewise, creep feed can bridge the gap for larger calves in late summer when forage quality may be declining and calves are more reliant on forage to promote weight gain.

Much like preconditioning, creep feeding comes with added costs. However, premiums are not required to pay for creep feeding, and it can improve profitability. One of the biggest concerns is that creep feeding will make cattle too fleshy or that it will limit productivity of females retained in the herd as replacement animals. What you feed and how much affects that. With proper nutrition, it is possible to retain medium flesh on calves in any herd regardless of fleshing ability.

Another option is to utilize limiter technology in your creep feed to help achieve desired gains without overconsumption.

Creep feeding is one of the most practical forms of insurance available to ensure that you are producing a consistent product every year. It not only adds pounds of profit to the calf crop, it also aligns with the needs of the feedlot customer by teaching calves arguably the most important concept in beef production today – how to eat.  end mark

Cody Schneider, Ph.D., is a beef technical specialist for Cargill Animal Nutrition. Email Cody Schneider.

PHOTO: Creep feeding teaches calves to eat and prepares them for the next stage of production. Staff photo.