Calving is winding down, and producers soon will be making decisions that could affect their profit margin when they sell those calves months from now.

One of those decisions is whether to supply the calves with creep feed. That’s essentially any feed a producer provides calves while they’re still nursing.

The amount of creep feed required to produce the desired result in the calves is a major factor producers must consider when deciding whether creep feed is cost-effective, according to Karl Hoppe, Extension area livestock specialist at North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center.

“Make sure you do the math with the right feed conversions,” he advises.

Producers must keep in mind they will need more creep feed if they are using it as a replacement for pasture grasses than as a supplement, he says. For example, he estimates calves would need 5 to 7 pounds of creep feed for 1 pound of weight gain if creep feed is a supplement. However, if it’s replacing pasture grasses, calves might need 8 to 9 pounds of creep feed for 1 pound of weight gain.

“So if the pasture condition is good to exceptional, then be sure to use a creep feed formulated to supplement grass, rather than replace grass,” he says.

Favorable and profitable conversions of 5 to 7 pounds of creep feed to 1 pound of gain are typical where pasture forage is limited and feed is balanced with nutritional requirements, says John Dhuyvetter, area livestock specialist at NDSU’s North Central Research Extension Center in Minot. Such conversions also are likely for calves of first-calf heifers and very old cows where milk and grass don't meet calves’ growth potential.

Hoppe recommends producers start calves on creep feed as soon as possible to avoid digestive upset.

“I’m always concerned when pastures become overgrazed and then creep feed is introduced,” he says. “This can lead to extremely high intakes of creep feed and result in sickness and possible death.”

When producers plan to sell their calves is another big part of the creep feed equation.

“If you sell calves at weaning, the extra weight they’ve gained on creep feed needs to be worth more than the extra cost of the feed,” Hoppe says.

Producers also should consider the source of the creep feed. Commercially produced creep feed is more expensive than the home-gown varieties. The commercial product might be less costly in the long run, though, because it will result in fewer digestive upsets and it contains correctly formulated rations, Hoppe says.

The type of creep feed used could be another issue. He suggests using creep feeds containing higher amounts of protein and fiber and lower amounts of starch as a supplement to grass. These creep feeds improve the digestibility of grass. Calves eating creep feeds that are starch-based, or mostly grain, will substitute creep feed for grass.

“Creep feeding in most all situations will increase calf weights and herd revenue,” Dhuyvetter says.

However, calculating profit margins from creep and alternative feeds is very important with today's high feed costs, he says. To calculate the feed cost per pound of additional weight from supplemental feeding, multiply the cost per pound of feed by the projected rate of conversion (pounds of creep feed consumed per pound of added weight gain).

Since heavy calves usually sell for less per pound than lighter calves, the value of added pounds from creep feeding often is less than market price. If there are small or no price slides, this is sometimes the case when cattle feeders are aggressive bidders for early heavy calves capable of finishing for the April or earlier seasonally high markets. Then the added weight can be valued near market price.

“More typically, we see a 6- to 8-cent per hundredweight price slide associated with increasing calf weights, making the added pounds worth about 65 percent of market price,” Dhuyvetter says.

Creep feeding is not likely to pay when conversions are high, in situations where pastures provide good nutrition and cows are milking well, he adds. It also is of questionable value for heifers that will be retained and developed for replacements, and calves that will be backgrounded for an extended time postweaning.

For Hoppe and Dhuyvetter, the bottom line is producers need to consider all the variables and spend a little time with their calculators before making a decision on creep feed.

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