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Top 5 Tips for Creep Feeding Calves this Autumn

August 7, 2020

Nigel Gould, CAFRE Beef and Sheep Development Adviser, Enniskillen

Now is the time to consider creep feeding spring born calves which are due to be weaned this Autumn. The decision whether or not to creep feed will depend on individual farm circumstances such as availability of quality grazing or expected weaning date. Creep feeding may not be as beneficial where calves will be housed for a period pre-weaning and/or where grass quality can be maintained into the autumn. However, where milk supply has declined rapidly and grass quality and quantity are poor, creep feed will be a worthwhile investment. If you choose to creep feed calves at grass this autumn, the following 5 tips will increase your chances of a return on investment:

1. Choose quality ingredients

The purpose of a creep feed is to supplement the calf’s original diet of milk and grazed grass in order to achieve increased calf performance. With this in mind, only quality ingredients should be used. Target crude protein content of 16% and metabolisable energy (ME) content of 12.5 MJ/kg DM. Simple concentrate mixes consisting of a few quality ingredients are superior to those containing a higher number of inferior ingredients. An example of a suitable creep concentrate mix is as follows: 57.5% Barley, 25% Beet Pulp, 15% Soyabean Meal and 2.5% Minerals/Vitamins. Use only fresh ingredients. Generally 2-3 kg per calf per day is offered, dependant on calf type.

A-simple-adjustment-to-an-existing-gate-can-facilitate-creep-feeding-and-creep-grazing
A-simple-adjustment-to-an-existing-gate-can-facilitate-creep-feeding-and-creep-grazing
2. Group calves by type

Live weight gain response to creep feeding is affected by calf type, with an additional 1kg live weight gain per 4-5 kg concentrate achievable in muscled continental type bull calves. Traditional bred heifer and steer calves can be prone to laying down fat at the higher feeding levels, therefore reducing the response to creep feeding. For this reason, bull and heifer calves should be grouped separately and where possible, further subdivision of well conformed and lesser conformed types will facilitate a higher level of feeding for muscled types which can achieve the maximum live weight gain response.

3. Alternatives to creep feeding

Although a traditional roofed creep feeder will keep feed dry, it usually means that all calves cannot feed at once. There may also be hassle involved in moving the feeder particularly where cattle are being moved regularly in a paddock system or in periods of wet weather when the weight of a tractor can cause damage. There are practical, cost effective alternatives. One option is to raise the electric wire to allow calves to pass underneath. Another involves a custom made adjustment to allow a gate to be left slightly ajar with creep access to the adjoining field. These options also facilitate creep grazing which will allow the calves to graze the higher quality leafy grass while cows can be used to clean out swards. This is particularly beneficial where sward quality has declined with significant accumulation of dead material towards the base. In addition, this will help weaken the cow-calf bond and reduce stress at weaning.

4. Avoid ad-lib feeding

Ad-lib creep feeding essentially means replacing grazed grass with concentrate feed which should generally be avoided from a cost-benefit perspective. Maintaining quality grass in the diet will reduce costs.  Although ad-lib feeding may deliver performance benefits in older well conformed bull calves destined to be finished as bulls under 16 months, it will result in un-wanted fat deposition in traditional bred and heifer calves in particular. Vermin are likely to be more of an issue where creep feeding is ad-lib.

5. Keep troughs clean and feed fresh

Gradually build up the level of creep feed and keep troughs clean at all times. Split feeding on wet days may help reduce spoilage. Store feed well and control vermin.