Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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Steve B. Blezinger

Creep feeding, like so many management practices, has been around for a long time. Interestingly, of the many ways we strive to improve performance of our herds, creep feeding (CF) tends to be one of the more poorly understood. The following text is designed to clarify some of these misunderstandings and to help the producer decide if CF is a tool he needs to be using as well as how to implement an effective program.

Let's outline some basic definitions first. Creep feeding is the practice of providing supplemental feed to nursing calves. This is done usually with the use of a creep gate or fence, large enough for calves to enter the feeding area, but too small to allow cows to pass. Over the years we've developed a number of applications for this concept but regardless of which method is chosen it needs to be carefully evaluated prior to use. Creep feeding should be treated as a management decision rather something that is done every year come rain or shine. Types of CF include high grain (high energy) programs, limit fed protein programs, “fill-the-gap” programs, creep grazing and so on. Each system produces a general response of increased growth but here's the key: it may or may not always be profitable. Creep feeding, like any other supplementation practice, must be analyzed based on estimates of expected increases in performance and income compared to the costs of these im-provements.



High Energy/Grain Creep System

Historically, the most common type of CF is free-choice access to concentrate feeds. Under most circumstances this system will produce the most additional gain and fattening of calves, but not necessarily the most return. Research shows that calves will reduce their forage consumption and mainly consume the creep feed. This becomes more similar to full feeding than supplementation. Typical feed efficiency of a grain creep system varies from 5:1 to 10:1, this being in situations of inadequate forage such as during the winter or droughts. In other cases feed efficiency has ranged up to 20:1 which is obviously not economical. In markets such as we have at this time (i.e. high calf prices, low grain prices) utilization of a program such as this can provide added profits at the higher conversion ratios although better feed efficiency is still preferable.

Success with this creep system fluctuates with cattle and grain prices, available forage, type of cattle and management system. With the high grain creep system, many ration combinations can be utilized to achieve satisfactory results. Ingredients and ingredient amounts can varied according to the desired rate of gain, feed cost, ingredient availability and so on. Whole or rolled grains make a simple satisfactory creep feed and are more palatable than finely-ground grains. Additionally, many commercial formulations are available, some of which are more effective than others.

Creep feeding can be accomplished using either a self feeder with a creep gate attached or by using a creep gate to divide off a separate creep area and placing a trough inside. It takes time for calves to learn to use either type. Locating feeders around loafing areas and spreading hay in creep areas will help the calves find the feed quicker.

One potential strategy to consider is that CF using higher fiber ingredients which have a similar effect in the rumen to hays and grasses can be useful. The main problem that we run into when creeping with high grain mixes is that the bacteria required for digestion of these feeds are very different from those needed to breakdown forages. When cattle consume certain amounts of these grains, a shifting in the bacterial population occurs which can actually reduce forage intake and digestibility for a period of time, reducing some of the overall benefit. By using higher fiber ingredients, this effect is lessened signifi-cantly.

Limit-Fed High Protein

Research conducted at the University of Georgia indicates that cotton seed or soybean meal limit-fed with salt, can stimu-late an efficient increase in weaning weight. The major activity of high protein creep feed is to increase forage digestibility and forage intake. Research has shown repeatedly that digestibility and forage intake for cattle on poorer quality pastures and/or hays when protein is supplemented. This provides additional nutrient to the rumen microbes which these bugs need for increased activity and reproduction. This increased activity and population increases the degree to which they can breakdown forage particles. This is one of the primary keys to a successful program and one where improved profitability is more likely. The system works best when forage quantity is plentiful, but is lacking in protein content and or poorly digestible. This is common where grasses have gotten mature or it is late in the growing season. In these situations, the conversion of creep feed to added gain has ranged from two to three with calves consuming about one pound/day of cotton seed meal.

Creep feeding has been used in self limiting forms quite often. From 8 to 10 percent salt has been effective in limiting daily intake to about one pound soybean or cottonseed meal. Intakes should be limited to about this level because most of the favorable effects on forage digestibility and intake are achieved more efficiently with the first pound of protein creep. Beyond the one pound level, additional protein creep will likely be used for energy and the conversion of creep to added gain will become less efficient. Other intake limiting strategies include inclusion of materials such as calcium chloride as well as fish-meal or fishoil. Calcium chloride functions to limit intake by manipulating blood chemistry while ingredients such as fish meal or oil have more of an effect on actual palatability. Either of these systems tend to be more useful than salt mixes due to increased effectiveness and decreased corrosiveness in the feeders.

The figures in Table 1 are from research trials conducted at the University of Georgia in the late 80's. The pastures used in the trials were a mixture of common bermudagrass and tall fescue.

Current added profitability in a program similar to this should be even greater considering higher weaned calf prices and lower feed costs. Additionally, these trials monitored calf weight change through the first seven days post-weaning. During this seven day period, creep-fed calves consumed more feed (hay & grain) and lost less weight than control calves.

Creep Grazing

All creep feed does not have to come in feed form. One fairly attractive alternative to purchasing creep feed is to raise it. Creep grazing programs can produce additional calf gains using forage rather than the traditional grain-based creep diets. There are many ways to adapt this system to each individual situation, but the bottom line is that it must be profitable.

The calf's response to creep grazing depends on the quality of forage to which it has access to begin with. If the calf is grazing a high quality grass-legume forage (i.e. ryegrass and clover or vetch), then the expected benefits of creep grazing would be minimal. Effective periods would be if calves are grazing fungus infected fescue, have access only to lower quality grass hay or any other poor quality forage. Regardless of forage quality, if forage quantity is a problem, then creep grazing should have a positive effect on calf performance and probably cow performance as well.

Two different methods of allowing calves access to creep forage, while keeping cows out have been used. One method is to build a typical creep gate with entrance slots for the calves and place it in the fence line or at the gate separating the creep grazing area from the main pasture. Another option would be to string a strand of electric wire about 36 to 42 inches above the ground to allow calves to graze while keeping cows out.

Different forages can be used for successful creep grazing successfully as long as they are high in nutrient quality and readily available. Research with some varieties of pearl millet shows that calf average daily gain was increased more than .5 lbs per head per day from late June to October 1. As a result creep grazed calves weighed 80 pounds more at weaning. By using summer annuals such as pearl millet, calves can be stocked at six to ten per acre of creep forage. If the forage gets ahead of the calves, turn the mature cows in to harvest the excess forage. The key, as mentioned is keeping the forage in a vegetative state where quality is high.

For calves born in the fall, winter annuals such as ryegrass, oats and wheat can also be used effectively for creep grazing. Work by Louisiana researchers demonstrated a 91 pound increase in weaning weights when calves creep grazed winter annuals. Stocking rates and management of unused forage can be handled in a manner similar to that of summer annuals.

Creep grazing has a couple of other indirect benefits. One is that calves do not get as fat as when they are grain creeped. This is particularly important for replacement heifers, where research shows that getting young heifers excessively fat reduces their milk production. The other benefit is that cows with creep grazed calves maintain more body condition as they go into and through the winter. Having cows go into winter in good shape is a big advantage on most any operation since it decreases time to rebreeding and increases conception rates.


1. Cost of the added feed/supplement. It makes little sense to spend more than the market price to produce additional weight gain. The conversion of feed to gain can vary from three to 12 pounds of feed for each pound of gain above non-creep fed calves. The interrelationship between feed conversion and feed cost determines the cost of gain. Creep grazing systems increasing in calf weights would have to be evaluated against the cost per acre of creep forage, the number of calves carried per acre, and amount of extra gain produced per acre of creep grazing.

2. Timing of supplementation. Generally, spring-born calves nursing their dams do not usually require any supplementation until mid-late summer when forage quality and the cow's milk production start to decline. If high quality summer grazing is present, creep feed is not warranted at all.

3. Quantity and quality of available forage. If plenty of high quality forage is available, intake of the supplemental feed or grazing will be reduced and the benefits in animal performance over the no creep system will diminish. Creep feeding has been the most effective in drought situations or whenever quantity or quality of pastures do not meet the calf's requirement for growth.

4. Cover-up of poor milking performance by some cows. If culling and selection are based on weaning weight, creep feeding invalidates this method of selection. Calves of poor milking cows eat more feed to makeup for what they have not received from the cow. If you do creep feed, weigh calves prior to the supplementation period to obtain an estimate of the cow's performance.

5. Retaining calves for winter stockering program. If calves are heavily fed and fat at weaning, it could diminish their expected performance through the winter.

6. Creeping replacement heifers. While supplementation of these calves probably helps them reach breeding weight at an earlier age, it may also lead to lower milk production. Research shows that high energy supplementation and fattening of heifers, prior to weaning, causes a decrease in mammary development and subsequent milk production.


Brood Cows

In some experiments an increase in cow weight has been observed. This may be a result of reducing the amount of pasture being consumed by calves, particularly when pasture is short. It is questionable as to whether creep feeding reduces the calf's appetite for milk. In lambs just the opposite appears to occur; i.e., the creep fed lamb is larger and tends to nurse more fre-quently and vigorously, which tends to stimulate heavier milk production. If cows nursing creep fed calves are heavier at weaning, credit must be given for (1) the heavier sale weight of cull cows, and (2) possibly some reduction in their feed needs following weaning.

Replacement Heifers

Heifer calves fed a high energy ration before weaning can develop fatty tissue in the udder that consequently lowers milk production, compared to those heifers not fed high energy creep rations. This impairment of future production can occur before the heifer reaches six months of age. Research at Oklahoma State University and Purdue University indicates cows creep fed as calves before weaning weaned lighter calves than those not creep fed. The point is: adequate (but not excessive) nutrition is needed for the heifer calf to reach sexual maturity by the time she is 13 to 15 months old. Where milk production is low in relation to calf nutrient needs (young cows, old cows, drought conditions, or perhaps where heifer calves have exceptional genetic growth rate relative to milk production of their mothers), supplemental feeding of heifers before six to seven months of age may be necessary for them to reach puberty at 13 to 15 months.

For Purebred Herds

Long-term creep feeding reduces accuracy in comparing cow productivity and, to some extent, growth rate of the calf, because of the individual variation in creep consumption. On the other hand, calves that consume large amounts of creep feed show their maximum growth potential to a greater degree. Considering the apparent effect of creep feeding on future productivity of heifers and the reduction of accuracy in evaluating replacements, creep feeding is questionable if forage is adequate.

For Starting Calves on Feed

Calves started on creep rations before weaning begin eating sooner after they are weaned or shipped. They usually recover weaning or shipping losses in a shorter period of time, and may have less respiratory disease because nutritional stress is reduced. Calves fed salt-limited creep rations for a short period of time prior to weaning typically exhibited the best feed-to-gain ratios.


All the above illustrates the need to make decisions of this nature carefully. Creep feeding can be an extremely useful tool but conditions must be evaluated carefully prior to implementation. Always take careful inventory of pasture and management conditions, cattle and grain markets prior to initiating programs such as this.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at


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