Creep feed for your beef calves

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

  • Creep feed helps calves grow faster and heavier before weaning, leading to better marketability and potentially higher prices.
  • Creep feed also takes pressure off the cow by reducing her milk production needs, helping her maintain body condition and re-conceive sooner.
  • To be cost-effective, creep feed is typically only used for calves that will be sold directly after weaning or placed in an intensive finishing programme.
  • Creep feed should be introduced gradually and formulated with the right balance of protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins for optimal calf health and development.
  • Providing creep feed can be especially beneficial during droughts when grazing quality is poor and calves need extra nutrients to thrive.

Creep feed for beef calves is aimed at bridging the nutritional deficit between what the growing calf requires and what the mother’s milk and available grazing offers.

Although this article is mainly focussed on aspects pertaining to the utilisation of creep feed, the first point of importance to consider is the difference between the cost and advantage of the creep ration.

Management aspects

A whole range of expenses is associated with creep feed, including the feed itself, feed troughs and creep gates, as well as labour and management. Factors to consider are market prices, feed costs and an expected improvement in calf and cow performance. Alleviating pressure on cows during the drier conditions is another vital aspect to consider.

To learn more about creep feed 101: The basic principles

Although calves as young as three weeks may be exposed to creep feed, such a ration is usually given to calves from three months of age up to and including weaning when the lactating beef cow, especially in the dry season, no longer provides her calf with enough nutrients for maximum growth.

Generally, creep feed is only economically justifiable if the calves are sold directly from the mother or placed in an intensive finishing programme immediately after weaning. If calves are weaned and grown out on grazing only, it reduces profitability quite drastically as they might benefit from compensatory growth later on.

Troughs for creep feed

Producers often make use of creep gates that give calves access to the feed trough while prohibiting cows from entering the area. The key to success is providing adequate feeding space; this gives calves equal access to the feed.

Creep gates are typically made of pipe with vertical bars spaced 400 to 450mm apart. The horizontal bar at the top is approximately 1m off the ground. Adjustable gates can be used for enlarging the spaces to accommodate growing calves.

Place the creep ration close to a water point; this will force the calves to pass it regularly during the day. Trough space of 10 to 12cm per calf for self-feeders, or 20 to 30cm per calf if fed by hand, is essential. Troughs must be closed to protect the feed from wet weather.

Benefits for calves pre-weaning

Compared to calves that rely solely on their mothers’ milk, creep feed provides additional nutrition to suckling calves and supports faster growth. Quicker growth leads to heavier weaning weights and therefore better marketability and possible higher prices.

The real benefit of creep feed emerges when the cow’s milk production is poor and/or the quality and quantity of grazing is unable to support optimal weight gain, as well as when ownership of the calves is retained. To reap the full benefit of the creep ration (additional weight gain, improved health, and increased intramuscular fat), ownership of the calves must be retained throughout the feedlot phase.

It is easier for calves that have been exposed to creep feed to switch from a milk-based ration to solid feed. This reduces weaning shock as well as associated health challenges. Good pre-weaning nutrition supports the development of a robust immune system. Creep feed contributes to the strengthening of the immune response, which lowers the risk of disease and improves general calf health.

Benefits for the cow

Creep feed relieves pressure on the lactating cow, as the calf that consumes creep feed is less dependent on her milk. This enables the cow to maintain body condition and milk production, without depleting her body reserves. Creep feed therefore relieves the stress associated with weaning on both the calf and cow.

The lactating cow, thanks to the creep ration, is better able to maintain a more optimal body condition, which is essential for timely re-conception. Good body condition supports improved conception rates and shorter calving intervals.

Management considerations

Regular monitoring of calves’ feed consumption is essential in order to measure animal performance and the economic viability of creep feed, as well as to make timely adjustments if necessary. Monitoring can be done by weighing the feed for a 24-hour period before adding it to the troughs, after which the feed that remains is weighed.

Creep feed may have an impact on the time and ease of weaning. It is important to have a well-planned weaning strategy in place that considers the nutritional requirements of the calves, their growth rate, as well as the planned weaning age. Weaning should be gradual – the calf should have more access to the creep ration while its milk intake is reduced – as this will ease the process for both calf and cow.

Environmental considerations

Creep feed may relieve the pressure on grazing by providing supplementary nutrition for calves – they will ingest less grazing.

During times of drought when grazing often lacks the necessary nutrients, creep feed will provide calves with the nutrients they need for growth and development. Furthermore, it will relieve the pressure on the grazing. The creep ration is an essential aid in managing the adverse effects of drought conditions.

Composition of feed

The nutritional requirements of calves for rapid growth and development pre-weaning are high. The formulation of creep feed is well able to meet the requirements of the growing calf. It usually contains a combination of grains (energy), protein sources, minerals and vitamins for a balanced ration.

When formulating a creep ration, aspects such as particle size and density of raw materials are crucial. Where big variances exist, the different ingredients will exit the self-feeder at different rates or separate in the troughs, allowing the calves to select what they want to ingest. Pelleted rations are therefore the preferred option as it limits selective feeding. Creep feed intake is typically between 1 and 1,5% of the calf’s bodyweight.

Nutrients

The nutrients in creep feed all play a different role, which should be well understood. For optimal growth and development of the calf, the creep feed formulation must include enough protein, energy, minerals and vitamins. This also supports a robust immune system and consequently, a well-balanced creep ration will strengthen the immune response and improve general calf health.

If a well formulated ration is used efficiently it goes without saying that it will contain the correct nutrients in the correct quantities for optimal results. The inclusion of various nutrients in a creep feed mix is therefore important for different reasons.

Protein is the fundamental nutrient in a creep ration, as it plays a key role in the growth and development of young calves. It is essential for tissue formation, muscle development and immune system functioning. The inclusion of high-quality protein sources such as soya bean or cottonseed oilcake assist in meeting the calf’s protein requirement, supporting optimal growth and ensuring overall health.

Another indispensable nutrient is energy, which provides the ‘fuel’ for growth and development. Calves require enough energy for metabolic processes, maintenance of body temperature, and support of physical activity. The inclusion of energy-dense grains and starch by-products such as maize and wheat bran, together with molasses (which makes the ration more palatable), ensures that enough energy is available and supports healthy weight gain.

Minerals are essential nutrients that play a critical role in growth and development. A few key minerals are:

  • Calcium and phosphate: Critical for frame development and bone formation. Adequate levels of calcium and phosphate, in the right ratio, support bone mineralisation and reduce the risk of skeletal disorders in growing calves.
  • Zinc, copper, manganese and selenium: These trace elements are essential for various physiological functions, including enzyme activity, immune system functioning and antioxidant defence. Including these in the correct quantities therefore contributes to general health, immune functioning and disease resistance in suckling calves.

Vitamins are essential organic structures that play an essential role in metabolic processes and general health. Some of the key vitamins are:

  • Vitamin A: Essential for good vision, immune functioning and growth.
  • Vitamin E: Acts as an antioxidant and plays a role in immune functioning and muscle development.

The inclusion of fibre in creep feed is essential for a healthy digestive system. Fibre contributes to the stimulation of rumen development and improves the fermentation process, resulting in better digestion and absorption of nutrients. The inclusion of high-quality fibre sources such as soya hulls or wheat bran and lucerne hay improves rumen health and supports a smooth transition to a post-weaning pasture-based diet. – Izak Hofmeyr, Stockfarm

The information in this article was provided by Dr Hinner Köster, international animal nutrition consultant. For more information, phone him on 082 855 5453 or send an email to hhkos1704@gmail.com.

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