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CREEP FEEDING 101: IS IT RIGHT FOR YOUR OPERATION?

by: Martha Hollida Garrett

Some decisions are easier than others. The decision to creep feed or not to creep feed is not an easy one for producers. Like most other aspects of the beef business its a complex decision and one that has to be analyzed year after year. This management decision has lots of variables and responses that are not always predictable.

"Each producer has to weigh independently if creep feeding is financially feasible for them and plug in their personal variables, when making this decision," says Dr. Jason Cleere, Texas A&M University assistant professor and extension beef cattle specialist.

Creep feeding is simply a way to supplement grass and milk of unweaned calves with the feed not available to the mother.

Creeping is usually done in free choice feeders and traditionally feeds in the 10 to 15 percent protein range, with 14 percent protein pellets the most popular. These feeds are traditionally moderate to high energy concentrate feeds. Nutritionists cite forage quality as the dominant factor in selecting the level of protein needed for creeping a set of calves.

Dan E. Eversole, an extension animal scientist with Virginia Tech explains that milk from a lactating beef cow furnishes only about 50 percent of the nutrients that a three to four month old calf needs for maximum growth. The remaining nutrients must come from elsewhere if the calf is to realize its genetic potential for growth. High quality pasture is the best and most economical source of required nutrients during this period of insufficient nutrient intake. Unfortunately, in spring calving beef herds the shift from "milk to grass" to meet the nutrient requirements of young beef calves frequently comes at a time when the availability and quality of pastures are declining (June to October).

His work says that creep feeding the nursing calf increases the subsequent rate of gain and weaning weight. These responses are related to the lactatiorial curve of beef cows, the decline in pasture or feed quality, and quantity needed to support the cow/calf pairs and the increasing nutrient requirement of the calf during the nursing period. Studies have revealed that maximum milk production of beef cows occurs during the first two months after calving and then declines.

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, where as a 500 lb. calf needs 50 lbs. of milk. Since the average beef cow produces approximately 13 lbs. of milk daily through a 205 day nursing period, a 500 lb. calf is short changed by 40 lbs. of milk at this lactational stage to meet its nutritional needs. This is known in the industry as "hungry calf gap" and this gap can be filled with creep feeding.

It should be noted by producers that the calf's rumen starts to develop functionally as soon as roughage is consumed, but time is required before it is completely functional. Nursing calves that consume some roughage, begin ruminating at about three months of age; however, if only milk and concentrate feeds are consumed, the rumen develops considerably slower.

Fulfilling the energy and protein requirements over and above that provided by the average milk production (13 lbs.) of a beef cow would require the daily consumption of 50 lbs. of grass pasture (average quality) by the nursing calf. Unfortunately, the rumen of a 500 lb. calf cannot accommodate that much roughage.

Frank Reznicek, manager of Kaechele Ranch, Wallis, Texas is a producer that practices creep feeding. They run a large cow/calf operation in Austin, Colorado and Wharton counties in Texas. They have a Hereford cow base and cross these with Brahman bulls to produce F1's, and then the F1 is bred to Angus bulls and then that Black Baldie is bred to Brangus bulls.

They raise their own replacement heifers and have an annual fall sale for replacement females and some feeder calves. Some of the steer mates are sold at weaning at private treaty, and some Reznicek chooses to retain ownership on so that they have different marketing options.

"Creep feeding is part of our program as we feel in the first cross our milk production is low. We have been creeping for about five years and evaluate it carefully. We feel the extra weight put on the calves enhances our product for the type of market we have selected and I feel that it is important that producers understand their market and price levels," describes Reznicek.

Creep feeding includes variables itself as it can be free choice, high energy/grain or limit fed high protein feed with salt primarily as the limiter and creep grazing, where the calf grazes a high quality grass legume forage.

Cleere is quick to caution producers, "to consider the advantages and disadvantages of creep feeding aside from dollars and then to closely analyze feed costs, market prices and the market slide for heavier calves as the sale price per hundredweight declines as calves become heavier."

Calculations should be made by each producer with figures from their specific operation and include the approximate cost of added weight gain from creep feeding, added labor requirements, forage conditions and a current market analysis.

Advantages could include:

1. Improves weaning weight and rate of gain.

2. Provides a way to fill the "hungry calf gap."

3. Compensates for low milk production.

4. Facilitates fall calving.

5. Improves calf uniformity.

6. Enhances merchandising by adding bloom and weight to calves.

7. Provides calves that are bunk broke.

8. Provides market flexibility.

9. Simplifies weaning.

While a list of disadvantages could include:

1. May not be profitable, due to feed costs, conversion rate, market prices or a combination of these factors.

2. Labor and equipment would be needed.

3. May lower feedlot gain and efficiency.

4. May produce fleshy calves with a price discount.

5. Can be difficult in remote areas.

6. May impair future milk production on replacement heifers and in a commercial herd interferes with selection of cows for milk.

"Producers can expect to feed 3 6 lbs. of feed per day per calf and we have seen that figure go to as much as 8 lbs. They need to factor in 9 10 lbs. of feed per pound of gain. Feed conversion is probably the biggest disadvantage in the formula and again these numbers can vary. Producers need to decide the number of days they are going to feed, and most look at 75 90 days as a good estimate," explains Cleere.

He says that creep feeding is probably the most advantageous for producers who plan to sell at weaning. Research has shown that non creep fed calves will catch up with creep fed calves in the feedlot. He also cautions producers not to get these calves too fat.

"Butterball fat calves are not as attractive to order buyers, and discounts will come into play as they realize these calves can have a slower rate of gain postweaning," describes Cleere.

Another area that producers should consider concerns whether to creep heifers which will be replacements.

"This depends considerably on your forage. You should have a target weight for that heifer to be at weaning and at breeding. Often it is better to get this weight with forage rather than feeds, as you do not want fat deposits in the mammary system and the resulting decreased milk production as a cow," emphasizes Cleere.

As far as mature cows go, the research is mixed on whether creep feeding has any significant effect on their condition and resulting reproductive performance, according to Cleere, who says that if your cows are in thin condition, early weaning may be a better choice than creep feeding.

Creep feeding does promote a more uniform set of calves and for the purebred breeder this is an attractive feature of the program.

Just as creep feeding itself presents a set of variables, selecting the right feed for your program has its complications, also. Producers are urged to visit with their feed dealers, analyze the nutrient content of their forage and to assess their calves' conditions.

Creep feeding can also improve a calf's health and take pressure off pastures during drought. On the flip side is the fact that someone has to provide the labor to creep feed.

Decisions involve trade offs and this one is certainly loaded with advantages and disadvantages aside from the expense/income factor (see sidebar). In today's economy, producers can not just look at their calves, go to town and buy creep feed and assume the added weight will result in more money and no disadvantages.

SIDEBAR

So, as a producer you've considered the other variables discussed and feel that creep feeding would offer some positives for your program, if the cost is feasible. Get your calculators ready and we'll work through some scenarios as examples for you to use in your analysis.

Example A:

On July 12th a set of calves, weighing an average of 425 lbs. sold for $148.26/cwt and a set of calves, weighing an average of 475 lbs. sold for $143.11/cwt, at the Oklahoma City Market. The lighter calves sold for $630.10 each, while the heavier calves sold for $679.77 each. This 50 lb. gain is comparable to what many producers add by creep feeding and resulted in an additional $49.67 or .99/cents per lb. extra.

On this same day, a 14 percent protein creep pellet was selling for $8.00/cwt. If you figure the conversion rate at 9 lbs. of feed for 1 lb. of gain, then the additional feed costs for that gain was $36 or .72 cents per pound. So, in this case creep feeding really did pay.

Cleere is quick to point out that in your case it may not take nine lbs. of feed for a pound of gain. It make take less or it may take more. Another variable would of course be the price of feed, as you may get a similar feed for a different price, and quality of pasture.

If the price difference had been $2 in the above scenario and in both cases we are assuming like quality on the calves, the bottom line would have been considerably different. If the 425 lb. calves sold for $148.26/cwt and the 475 lb. calves sold for $145.11, the lighter calves again would have sold for $630.10 each, but the 466 lb. calves would have sold for $689.20 each. This additional 50 pounds of gain would have resulted in $1.18 per pound more in the seller's check. Again assuming that feed costs were .72 cents per pound, a net of .46 cents per pound was realized. Which would result in a net of $23 per calf with no labor costs associated with the figures.

Example B:

The 425 lb. calves sold for $148.26/cwt and the 475 lb. calves sold for $145.11. Again the lighter calves would have sold for $630.10 each, and the 466 lb. calves would have sold for $689.20 each. This additional 50 pounds of gain would have resulted in $1.18 per pound more in the seller's check. Now if the feed costs had only been $7/cwt or costs were .70 cents per pound, a net of .48 cents per pound was realized. This would result in a net of $18 per creep fed calf with no labor costs associated with the figures.

Decisions of this magnitude are never easy, and again producers are urged to make calculations with figures from their operations, real time estimates of added weight, labor forage conditions and projected market values. In today's current market, creep feeding is a management tool worth considering for added dollars to an outfit's bottom line.

Reprinted with permission from the Weekly Livestock Reporter's Southwest Reference 2005.

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