Livestock production is shifting from commodity to value-added markets. It is a lot easier to sell flesh on calves than it was years ago. With calves on their dam, however, a common question is how to prepare them for the next step.
Dr. John Herrick, extension beef veterinarian at Iowa State University, promoted the idea of preconditioning calves more than 50 years ago. He believed that if calves were weaned for at least 30 days, vaccinated, fed from a bunk, taught to drink water from a tank or fountain, castrated, dehorned and treated for parasites before they left the cow-calf producer’s farm, they would be more properly prepared to thrive in their new home in the feedlot. Still, there has not been universal adoption of these types of programs, like MFA’s Health Track, within the cattle industry.
One of the easiest-to-implement components of a preconditioning program is to offer creep feed. Creep feeding calves is a well-established management tool that will both increase weaning weight and produce gain. By filling the nutritional gap created when milk and forage can no longer meet calf dietary needs, creep feed helps calves reach full genetic growth potential. As with any other management practice, creep feeding must be properly employed to succeed.
Creep feeding teaches calves to eat and prepares them for weaning. As calves get bigger and less dependent on milk from mom, it is important that they do not over-eat creep. The conventional wisdom is that creep should supplement the forage, not replace it. If forage is unavailable, weaning the calves and dry lotting them tends to be preferred. The objective is to use creep feed to supplement the energy intake of rapidly growing calves to support the additional growth.
The decision to creep or not to creep depends on whether it increases profit. Feed costs, price slide, equipment investment and labor are inputs that should be accounted for to more accurately look at the potential increase in profit.
Creep-fed calves are usually easier to wean than naive calves and experience fewer setbacks. They also tend to adapt to feedlot rations quicker. When fence-line weaning, creep feeders serve as a nutrition base station to nourish calves.
Feeding creep also reduces the variability of weaning weights. Every year—and within the year— forage quantity and quality can substantially vary. If forage availability is restricted early in the year, dam milk production might be reduced. Offering creep feed will help these smaller calves. For older calves, creep feed can provide additional energy and protein when cool-season pasture quality is declining and when the calves are more dependent on forage to support their weight gain. Creep feeding is also very effective if you need to stretch limited forage resources.
Creep-fed calves eat feed better and will more quickly recover their weight lost in weaning and shipping. They have much better average daily gain the first 28 days post-weaning than do non-creep-fed calves. The increased calf weight has a significant effect on profitability.
In newly received feeder calves, those that are creep-fed have reduced incidence of morbidity and mortality compared to others. Creep feeding provides an opportunity to use a coccidiostat to reduce the likelihood of the calves breaking with cocci when they are weaned. Creep feed is also an effective way to provide growth promotants or feed-through parasite control.
While creep feeding gives you more pounds of calf to sell, the cost of those extra pounds can vary tremendously. Using more efficient creep feeds such as MFA’s Cattle Charge or Full Throttle will give better feed-to-gain ratios than will creep feeding commodities. Research data indicate that higher-energy creeps will result in greater marbling improvement in carcass grade compared to high-fiber creep feeds. If necessary, MFA Cadence can be used as a limiter feed if ad lib intake is excessive.
Creep feeding is one of the most practical practices to add value to calves, increasing weight and performance while reducing variation and morbidity. Talk with the livestock experts at your local MFA affiliate to learn more about this practice and how it may fit your operation.
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