Creep feeding strategies for beef calves

August 8, 2023
Nick Courville, an animal nutrition consultant with CHS, talks about the benefits of creep feeding for beef cow-calf herds and how to gauge return on investment.

Creep feed can help maximize calf weaning weights and stretch forage supplies. Nick Courville, an animal nutrition consultant with CHS, explains why now is an ideal time to provide the nutrition supplement to young animals.

Understand potential benefits

Forage supplies are tight in drought-stricken areas this season and that calls for some tough decisions by cow-calf producers. Courville emphasizes the benefits of introducing calf creep feeding into management plans to help bridge the gap when forage quality or supply are poor.

“The upfront benefit is pasture savings,” Courville explains. “Replacing dry matter with pelleted feed for calves is going to save grass for cows. Along with lightening grazing pressure, creep feeding can also promote heavier weaning weights and healthier calves, since they’re digesting a trace mineral vitamin package they wouldn’t normally get through a fiber diet.”

Calculate return on investment

A key aspect of creep feeding is its ability to boost weaning weights and overall calf development. Potential return on investment should be carefully evaluated before weaning begins.

“Depending on the operation and pasture conditions, calves can typically gain 50 to 70 pounds on creep feed alone. Under ideal pasture conditions, that range can increase to 70 to 100 pounds,” Courville says. “Generally, a calf will need to eat around five pounds to gain one pound of muscle. If creep feed costs $410 per ton, that equates to an expense of about $1 per pound of gain. In my area, calves sell for anywhere between $2.00 to $2.75 per pound, so you could see a net gain of $1 to $1.50 per pound.”

Timing and cattle selection matter

The timing of calf creep implementation plays a crucial role in reaping its benefits, Courville says. introducing it early in the season promotes grass growth, while later placement can stretch existing pasture resources.

“Generally, there are two types of cattle that benefit the most from creep feeding,” Courville continues. “The first are younger cows —2- and 3-year-olds that are harder to breed back and are still growing themselves while also raising a calf. The second set is cull cows you’re hoping to get one more calf from. In both cases, the supplement will help minimize strain on nursing cows and the negative impact calves have on their body condition.”

Courville recommends keeping the creep feed process as constant as possible to have the best chance for a seamless transition away from milk.

“The process is smoother once a calf is accustomed to eating out of a feeder,” says Courville. “My recommendation is to use Payback® Head Start out of the same feeder. The quicker you can get a calf on feed, typically the faster it will wean off its mother.”