The decision to creep feed, which is any feed a producer provides calves while they're still nursing, is one that must judged by its cost-effectiveness, says Karl Hoppe, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center.

The amount of creep feed required to produce the desired result in the calves is a major factor producers must consider. "Make sure you do the math with the right feed conversions," he advises.

More creep feed is needed, for instance, if it's to replace pasture grasses than if used as a supplement. Hoppe estimates calves would need 5-7 lbs. of creep feed for every 1 lb. in weight gain if creep feed is a supplement. However, if it's replacing pasture grasses, calves might need 8-9 lbs. of creep feed for 1 lb. 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 5-7 lbs. of creep feed to 1 lb. of gain are typical where pasture forage is limited and feed is balanced with nutritional requirements, adds John Dhuyvetter, NDSU's Extension livestock specialist 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. Some other tips:

  • 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.

  • Consider the source of the creep feed. Commercially produced creep feed is more expensive than homegrown feed. 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 adds.

  • The type of creep feed used could be another issue. Use creep feeds with higher amounts of protein and fiber, and lower amounts of starch, as a supplement to grass to improve the grass's digestibility. 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.

  • Given today's high feed costs, calculating profit margins from creep and alternative feeds is very important. 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 bring less per pound at marketing than lighter calves, the value of creep feeding's added pounds 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 6-8ยข/cwt. price slide associated with increasing calf weights, making the added pounds worth about 65% of market price," Dhuyvetter says.

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