Beef calf creep feeding combined with early weaning

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Drought conditions across the Midwest have producers evaluating feeding scenarios for beef cow-calf pairs. As pasture conditions deteriorate, we need to be thinking about management plans for calf nutrition and performance.

Early weaning should be considered, and if the decision is to early wean, transitioning those calves to dry feeds is critical for success.

Creep feeding beef calves prior to weaning

The extra weight gained as a result of creep feeding is variable. Several factors listed below can affect calf performance when creep feeding.

  • supply and quality of pasture
  • milk production of the dams
  • growth potential of calves
  • sex of calves
  • age of calf at weaning
  • types of feed
  • length of creep feeding period
  • distance travelled to creep feeder
  • season of birth of calf

Depending on these variables, creep fed calves can be expected to gain from 5-100 pounds more before weaning than non-creep fed calves. Under most pasture conditions, the average increase in weaning weights range from 25-60 pounds.

Lactating beef cows grazing on good pasture early in the season can meet their nutritional needs for optimum milk production. However, by the time a calf is 90 days old, an average milking beef cow may produce enough milk to meet only one-half the nutrients needed by the calf for maximum growth.

Calves sucking good milking dams on good pasture will gain little from creep feeding, but if milk and/or pasture are poor as we are seeing in 2102, weaning weights can be substantially improved by creep feeding.

As calves approach weaning, their nutrient requirements increase. This increase is greater in calves with a good growth potential. If the calves’ nutrient requirements are greater than the nutrients supplied by milk and pasture, the calves’ growth rate will be restricted.

The cows’ milk production decreases in late summer and fall, as does available pasture and quality. Thus, the gap between the calves’ nutrient requirements and the amount of nutrients supplied by milk and pasture tends to increase.

When to Creep Feed

Creep feeding may provide an economic advantage if one or more of the following apply:

  • during periods of drought, when pastures are poor later in the grazing season or when cow milk production is lowered
  • two-year old heifers and low-producing cows or cows older than eleven years of age and their calves can be separated from the main herd
  • as part of a forage management program to conserve pasture
  • increase the pasture stocking rate
  • calves are fall born
  • as part of preconditioning program, creep feeding two to three weeks before weaning will help calves become accustomed to dry feed
  • prices for weaned calves are high and feed grain prices are low
  • the market demands calves to be in extra good flesh
  • late calves are being pushed for a set market date
  • feeding potential replacement heifers from low milk producers to get calves to reach puberty by 13 to 15 months of age for large cross-bred calves from low milk producing cows
  • when the price discount is small for heavier-weight feeder calves
  • when large-frame calves are immediately placed on a high energy ration and destined for slaughter at 12 to 14 months of age

Creep Feeding Precautions

  • Creep fed calves may receive a price discount if they are too fleshy at sale time
  • Heifer calves that receive a high energy creep feed prior to puberty may have up to a 25% reduction in lifetime milk production – when practical do not creep feed replacement females, or feed a creep based on high fiber, high protein feedstuffs (i.e. soy hulls, distillers grains).

For more information about early weaning combined with creep feeding, contact Kevin Gould at gouldk@msu.edu.

For additional cattle management resources, visit the MSU Beef Team website.



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