by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 1

Creep feeding of calves while still on the cow has been a management tool used for years by the cow-calf producer. The value and profitability of this practice has been long debated as well. So when producers ask if it is something worth considering, I give them the stock nutritionist's answer: “well, it depends.” And it does – the value and profitability depends on a list of factors that need to be considered before running out and buying or building feeders and loading them up with feed for these calves. This article will attempt to discuss some of these variables and how to evaluate each of them.

Why Creep Feed?

A variety of reasons exist as to why a producer might creep feed. The first and most obvious reason is “to wean bigger, heavier calves.” While this is true it has to be understood that the producer must carefully consider how this is done and the cost, otherwise he may simply breakeven on the costs and simply make more work for him or herself. It may also result in a loss of revenues.

So, thinking this through why do we consider creep feeding? Some reasons:

1) To wean bigger, heavier calves. This generally considered the number one reason for creep feeding. Keep in mind that for a three to four month old calf, the cow's milk provides only about 50 percent of what the calf needs for optimal growth. For spring calving herds, pastures can deliver high quality and plentiful forage access and calves are beginning to graze aggressively to make up the difference. This is likely not the case for fall calving herds where pasture quality is diminishing.

2) Provide needed nutrients during periods when availability is less than optimal (i.e. during fall calving seasons, drought, poor forage quality and quantity, challenging environmental conditions.

3) Possibly reduce the nutrient delivery burden (milking) on the cow.

Creep feeding the nursing calf increases subsequent rate of gain and weaning weight. These responses are related to the milking curve (milk production pattern) 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. Research has shown that maximum milk production of beef cows occurs during the first two months after calving and then declines. As a comparison, milk production of dairy cows increases up to 120 +/- days following calving 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 stage of milk production to meet its nutritional needs.

Feed Efficiency in Creep Fed Calves

In most cases, the most efficient feed conversion of a creep program to added weaning weights exists when nursing calves are unable to attain normal weaning weights without supplemental feed. Best results from creep feeding are most commonly seen when 1) forage is too mature for utilization by nursing calves; 2) forage quantity is inadequate due to drought or overgrazing; 3) calves are born to poor milking cows or first-calf heifers.

Creep feeding studies have shown a wide range of feed conversions from 4:1 to 18:1 pounds of creep feed to a pound of calf gain. Obviously the better conversion rates are much more profitable for the producer than the poorer rates. Conditions that allow heavy weaning weights without creep feed usually give poor responses to creep feeding due to the biological nature of the growth in calves. Calves normally gain about as fast as their genetic makeup will allow when there is an abundance of high quality forage and large quantities of milk available. When creep feed is offered to these calves, they will consume the creep feed and reduce their forage intake. Milk intake may or may not be affected by creep feeding. Research showing that creep feeding can be used to reduce nursing frequency and intensity on cows and heifers is not readily available. Most work suggests that calves will nurse to capacity before consuming creep feed or forage. Calves generally prefer milk first, palatable creep feed second, and forage third. When forage and milk are available, creep feed is substituted for forage and thus will preserve forage supplies to some degree.

Three major considerations must be examined when selecting creep rations:
1) Cost
2) Palatability
3) Nutrient content/density or quality of creep feed.
4) Delivery of additives that can enhance gain performance and health.

Creep feeding is more commonly practiced in purebred herds where appearance, size, and condition of calves are extremely important. Commercial cow/ calf operators creep their calves less frequently because economics do not always make it as cost effective as with more valuable purebred animals. Other important factors such as feed prices, efficiency of creep feed conversion to added weaning weight, and the effects of added weaning weight and condition on calf prices must be analyzed to determine the feasibility of creep feeding in purebred and/ or commercial cow herds. The actual feed itself can make significant differences. The cheapest feed is not necessarily the best feed.

It is a foregone conclusion that creep feeding is more profitable when calves are relatively high priced and feed is cheap. For example, given the prices for calves that producers have received in recent years virtually any practice that increases weaning weights will generate more income for the producer. Unfortunately, this economic situation does not occur that often. It is important that prior to starting a creep program that producers work with their nutritionist to project the probability of actually improving performance and profits with such a program.

A major concern among producers is the higher degree of body condition that results from creep-fed calves. Any creep feeding program that produces heavily fleshed calves in a discriminating market usually reduces the price per pound for the calves. The result is a significant reduction in the value of added gain from creep feeding and thus the program is counter-productive. Thus it is extremely important that a properly formulated creep feed is used to enhance muscle and skeletal development and not “fatness.”

On this note and another concern is the effect creep feeding can have on lifetime productivity of heifers. This is also usually related to the degree of fatness achieved at weaning time. If fat is deposited in the heifer's udder, it will inhibit formation of milk-secreting tissue. This is also a reason that daughters of heavy milking cows are often seen to be poor milkers because of the inadequate development of secretory cells in the udders of heifers reared on creep feed. When milk production and forage conditions are adequate for heifers to wean at acceptable weights, a good recommendation is to avoid creep feeding heifers that may be retained as potential breeding replacements.


Making the decision to initiate a creep feeding program is not one to be taken lightly. There are a variety of effects both positive and negative that can occur. Certainly the producer wants to avoid the negatives. In Part 2 of this series we will examine specifics that a producer must consider including actual creep feeding methods and nutrition.

Copyright 2016 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Stephen Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

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