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

Part 2

In the last issue we started a discussion concerning creep feeding and an ongoing evaluation of the value of this practice in cow-calf production. The main question the producer has to ask is “if I decide to creep feed my calves will this result in higher weaning weights and will it be profitable?” Many times producers will learn that the effort and the expense of creep feeding may not produce a positive return. As such, it is very important that the producer asks the proper questions and does everything to “stack the deck” in his favor. This includes taking steps and making decisions to:

1) Insure that the calf crop does, in fact, produce improved gains at weaning that are higher than would be realized if they were not creep fed.

2) Select a properly formulated creep feed that results in a very good feed efficiency and thus the cost is not greater that the revenues generated by the added gains.

3) Analyze for the operation what is an adequate profit. Since there are many costs on a given cattle operation that are not accounted for (operator labor is a big one), netting an additional $5-$10 per head over feed and equipment cost may not be truly profitable.

4) Determine if the added gain will result in a fleshy calf that might be viewed negatively by the buyer at the time of marketing. In other words, the calf may be heavier but the price per pound paid could be lower at the time of marketing than if the calf were somewhat lighter. Also, research has shown that overly fleshy weaned calves may be more susceptible to the transition stress and might experience greater health issues after weaning. This is observed in terms of greater sickness and subsequent treatment costs and loss of performance; also in higher death loss.

Some truths to consider

When it comes to creep feeding, i.e. providing more nutrients to the growing calf while still on the cow to promote increased growth, consider the following as the decisions above are contemplated:

As discussed in Part 1, when we creep feed the amount of “nutrient strain” on the cow is not really lessened. Studies have shown that calves at three to four months of age actually receive only about 50 percent of their requirements from the cow's milk as needed to reach their genetic potential. This could actually be less in high genetic potential calves born to average milking cows. Secondly, when creep feed is provided the milk consumption by the calf does not really decrease. The trade-off is in forage consumption. By the time the calf is three to four months old it has begun consuming an appreciable amount of its nutrient requirement from forage consumption. When creep feed is provided the amount of nutrients consumed from forage decreases somewhat. So the consideration here is what is the difference in nutrient consumption between these two sources (forage or creep feed)?

The consideration here has several variables. One is what is the forage the cows and calves are consuming at this point in time? If these are spring-born calves (let's say born in February for discussion sake), then they will reach that three to four month age range in May and June. In most areas, by this point cow herds are consuming mostly late spring and early summer grasses and legumes. In general, these forages are high in quality (assuming a reasonably good forage management program), thus the supply of highly digestible, nutrient dense (protein, soluble fiber for energy) is good. In this case, providing an average creep feed does not provide a significantly higher level of nutrients to the animal and thus may not result in an improved level of performance as compared to only the consumption of these forages alone. As the summer progresses and cattle are on perennial grasses that may become more mature and potentially dormant as the season progresses, there will be a greater difference in the nutrient availability between the forage base and the creep feed. Thus, the advantage to providing a creep feed at this point becomes more evident.

As noted above, a second variable that must be considered is the time of the year when calves are born and when they reach a point in their lives when the need for additional nutrients (above milk) increases. The three to four month age range was noted above. Again, this becomes a matter of what forages are available when the calf reaches that stage. This can be highly variable. For a fall-born calf (Sept-Oct) it will reach this stage Dec-Jan. There can be a very wide range of forage availabilities at this time. For instance, some operations may use 100 percent harvested, stored forages as the nutrient source for the cow herd at this time. This can range from dried hay (variation here in simply grass hays on to alfalfa or other legume hays which are more nutrient dense). It may include silage of varying types – corn, grass haylage, alfalfa or legume or a mixture. Other options include a planted fall-winter-spring annual program. Earlier in the season (Nov-Jan) this might include wheat, oats or rye. Later in the season (Jan-April) winter annuals might include ryegrass, clovers, etc.

Whatever the case, it is important to evaluate what the forage base is and how effective it might be in meeting the growing calf's needs while still on the cow. The idea is that we want to provide a nutrient base in addition to the cow's milk that can come as close as is economically feasible to meeting its genetic potential.

Another important consideration is that it is not necessary to build a calf supplementation program purely on feed. Remember that the true definition of a creep feeding program is to provide added nutrient levels to the calf in a manner that keeps the cows from getting to it and consuming this feed or forage. In some cases, this might mean setting up small, separate pastures where high quality forages have been established and managed for high nutrient levels and high digestibility. This area is then fenced off from the cows but a “creep gate” or area that allows the calves to pass through is put in place. This, in fact, may be more economic (and easier) since it does not require a purchased feed or periodic refilling of the feeders. Systems such as these can be quite effective and economically attractive.

What does a “conventional” creep feed need to look like?

Given the discussion above, the obvious answer is “it depends.” There are a number of variables to consider, particularly when we consider all the forage options and overall timing. Other considerations are breeds or breed types. Certain breeds have a higher energy requirement. Another factor is environmental conditions. Cold, wet winters or hot dry summers are particularly demanding and require additional nutrients, particularly energy to help maintain body temperatures at acceptable levels.

Buying a creep feed “off the shelf” is at best, a roll of the dice. A typical creep feed is formulated around 16 percent protein, is generally high in fiber and contains a highly variable range of vitamins and minerals. Creep feeds may also contain medications such as CTC (Chlortetracycline), Bovatec, Rumensin. It may also contain a fly control product. It should be noted that during periods when flies con be a problem there is really no point in purchasing a creep feed with fly control unless there is an overall fly control program in place on the farm.

An additional consideration is the form of the creep feed. Is it pelleted or texture (mixed feed form)? Pelleted feeds are generally consumed well and flow easily through a feeder but there can be a lot of associated fine material that develops from the handling process unless they manufacturer has a very good pelleting process and QC program in place. A commonly seen problem with pelleted creep feeds is that it allows the manufacturer to least cost formulate the feed and use cheaper ingredients which may also be less digestible. This may result in a relatively low cost feed product but since the digestibility may be lower the actual nutrient availability is lower as well.

Textured creep feeds are more difficult to “hide” cheaper ingredients in. However, unless properly formulated there can be flowability issues in the feeder. In some cases, producers have noted that calves do not start eating textured feeds as readily. This is HIGHLY subjective. For the most part pelleted and textured creep feeds can contain the same nutrient levels. The form of the feed creates certain positives and negatives in either case.

Selecting a Creep Feed Product

As with every other factor we've discussed here there are numerous considerations that need to be examined when selecting a specific product to use. Given the complexity of the issue it is helpful to consult a nutritionist the first time or two until you are comfortable with the process. Some guidelines:

1) Take the issues discussed above into consideration – forage base, time of year, genetic potential of cattle. If the cattle are already grazing a high quality forage, the amount of protein needed is decreased. These cattle may only require a 12 percent protein creep at the most. If they are on an average quality hay forage base, the need will be for something higher; 16 percent or possibly 18 percent protein.

2) Consider target intakes. A good intake for creep feed is 1 to 1½ percent of body weight. As cattle grow they certainly have the capability to eat more than this so some type of limiting agent may be necessary. In some cases, intake can be limited by adjusting the opening of the feeder itself which restricts the amount of feed that can flow through. This will be very much trial and error and will require fairly constant monitoring. Use of a salt limiter to control intake is not overly consistent plus the salt is corrosive to metal creep feeders. Other more technically advanced limiter can provide some better intake control but these are also not overly consistent and can take a few loads (if buying in bulk) to get the limiter inclusion level right.

3) Additives. Evaluate additives that you may want to or need to include. These may be organic/chelated trace minerals, yeast, enzymes or other probiotic type products, medications such as CTC or an ionophore and fly control. For the antibiotics you will need to be aware that there may be restrictions when it comes to certain combinations. Again, working with a nutritionist can help you answer these questions.

4) Formulation of a custom creep feed will generally more accurately match your production conditions. A limitation here is most companies that will manufacture a custom product have a minimum amount they need (3 tons, six tons, etc.). For smaller producers this can be a problem since they cannot handle a larger bulk amount or cannot use the product fast enough, say within 30 to 45 days to keep the product from potentially deteriorating. Smaller producers need to do their homework by contacting area feed suppliers to determine what product they routinely manufacture and compare the tags, nutrient profiles and costs to determine which product best meets their needs. Again, this may require contacting a nutritionist to help with this process. A producer can work with an independent consultant to help answer these questions. The investment in a consulting fee may be minor compared to the savings in feed cost and certainly in better animal performance.


Given the many variables it is impossible to evaluate all the combinations. The discussion here should help provide some ideas on how to start the evaluation process. Adopting a creep feeding program is not something to be done flippantly or without extensive evaluation. It can be a very useful and profit enhancing tool but only after doing a fairly extensive amount of homework.

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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