This Agfact is an introduction to the purpose and methods of creep feeding beef calves.
Creep feeding is a simple management practice allowing calves unrestricted access to additional feed while they are still suckling the cow. Calves gain access to the feed supplement through a 'creep', which is a fence opening or a gate opening large enough for calves to pass through but too small for the cows.
This feed supplement allows calves to reach target market specifications and Meat Standard Australia (MSA) grading at a young age, even in adverse seasonal conditions.
Additional costs are incurred in creep feeding, so the value improvement in the calves needs to be greater than the additional cost before a net profit is achieved.
To ensure profitability, careful planning and risk assessment is essential before feeding commences.
Consider the following in the planning process:
Big weight deficiencies to meet the desired markets will be difficult to economically overcome with short-term feeding, but small deficiencies in finish (fat depth) can be overcome, and a profit returned, if reasonable growth rates are being achieved.
Creep feeding is generally only economical for calves destined for slaughter and sale directly off the cow. If calves are weaned and grown out on pasture, the chances of creep feeding being economical are greatly reduced because the calves may benefit from compensatory weight gains on pasture later on.
The creep barrier is usually a gate made of pipe, with vertical bars spaced 400 to 450 mm apart over the full width. The top rail is positioned at a height of approximately 1 m off the ground. If desired, the creep can be constructed with adjustable vertical bars and top rail, allowing for increases in the size of the openings as calves grow. Where a grain supplement is fed, the creep is placed near a watering point or cattle camp so that all calves will pass near the creep, and hence the supplement, each day.
Another method is to fence off a small area sufficient to hold all the calves (Fig. 1). Creep access is given on one or two sides, with a trough or self-feeder set up in the middle of the yard. The trough should be covered to prevent feed waste caused by rain.
A calf creep constructed as a frame can be placed in a gateway (Fig. 2). It is portable and can be used as a gate in any location. It can be swung from one of the gateposts if required permanently, or simply tied in position.
Where creep weaning is normal practice, a calf creep can be built into the permanent fenceline and closed up when not in use (Fig. 3).
Starting calves on creep feed requires the farmer to put in a little time and effort for the first few days. Calves soon become accustomed to feeding away from the cows for short periods.
One successful method is to bring both cows and calves into the yards. Draft the cows out to an adjoining holding paddock, and feed the calves hay and grain in a trough. A temporary calf creep is set up in the gateway so the calves can move back to the cows. You may need to repeat this for a couple of days until the calves get used to moving back and forth through the creep before starting them in the paddock.
Where a separate enclosure is used in the paddock, feed both cows and calves until the calves get used to coming to the trough. After a few days a creep gate is placed across the entrance and the calves are enticed through to the trough by placing a little hay or grain either side of the creep.
A similar method can be used to creep calves onto a crop. Move both cows and calves onto the crop for a short period for the first few days. Then place the calf creep across the gateway and move the cattle to it. Some calves will move through the creep to the feed and gradually draw the others through. Again, the process could be accelerated by using hay or grain either side of the creep to entice them through.
Once most calves come to the feed, you can increase grain levels as outlined below. Feeding should be at the same time each day. However, if calves wait around and will not graze away, feeding can be spaced to every second day. A self-feeder should be introduced only when the calves are well established on feed, or where a mixed grain/hay ration is fed.
Grain/grain and grain/hay mixtures, and commercially prepared cattle pellets and loose mixes, are commonly used in creep feeding. The choice of feed used depends largely on:
Grain/grain mix supplements need not be complicated with too many ingredients, especially 'additives'. Supplements with up to two types of grain, plus protein (if required), are satisfactory. Add limestone to supply calcium, at 1% by weight of grain. Grain/hay mixes do not need limestone added, as hay will provide adequate calcium.
The supplement should be formulated to ensure that calves are receiving a total of at least 14% crude protein (CP) in their diet, so that growth is not limited by a lack of protein. Whole or rolled oats or triticale are the safest and easiest grains to feed. Where barley or wheat is used, better results will be achieved if it is rolled.
Barley and wheat are best shandied with oats, or with each other, to reduce acidosis (grain poisoning) risks from processed wheat.
Hammermilled grain should be coarsely cracked and should not be powdered.
Mixes of oats and lupins (80:20 by weight to achieve 14% crude protein) are commonly fed in the southern parts of NSW. The proportions of cereal and protein supplement can be altered depending on the protein level required in the feed and the protein level of the base cereal grain. A protein analysis on any cereal grain is suggested.
Creep supplements are usually fed at 1–1.5% of calf body weight per day. Pellets and grain should be introduced gradually over a 2-week period, with about 0.25 kg per head being fed daily for the first few days. As more of the calves start eating and all the feed is cleared up, the quantity can be increased every few days by between 0.25 and 0.5 kg per head until the desired level is reached.
Older calves eat up to about 3 kg of grain or 4–5 kg of mixed grain and hay each day. This represents about 1–2% of body weight. Grain-only rations give very good results, but if you use a mixture of grain and hay, the grain content should be at least 60% of the total supplement.
The supplement needs to be fed for at least 6 weeks before any significant improvement becomes apparent. The normal period is around 3 months, with expected weight gains of 0.75 kg to 1 kg per day.
Creep feeding trials using whole oats have shown that 35–40 kg additional gain can be achieved over unsupplemented calves during a 100-day feeding period. While the additional weight gain may cover only the cost of feed, the profit comes from having prime heavyweight calves available for sale when the majority of calves being sold are less attractive, lightweight stores.
Calves can be fed from open troughs or self-feeders. If fed daily, troughs should be of sufficient length to ensure all calves can eat at the same time and get their share of supplement.
Calves could be fed ad lib from a self-feeder. The self-feeder should be roofed and hold enough feed for several days. The feed intake of calves on a self-feeder is usually higher than that of calves fed daily, but there is considerable saving in time and effort if the feeder needs to be filled only once every 7–10 days.
Self-feeders should never be allowed to run empty before refilling. Hungry calves are likely to overeat, and this could result in digestive problems. Changes in feed formulation or changes between batches of commercial feeds should be made slowly to avoid digestive upsets.
A high-quality silage (65% digestibility, or higher) can be used as a supplement. However, liveweight gains will not be as high as those achieved from grain supplements.
To maximise silage intake, baled silages need to be chopped or broken up to allow the calves to eat more. Silage made from chopped parent material stored in a pit or bunker is already 'processed' to maximise intake.
Allow an extra 3–4 weeks for silage-only-fed calves to reach similar turn-off weights and finish as those achieved in grain-supplemented calves.
Silage plus grain supplements are ideal, especially if silage quality is between 60% and 65% digestibility. Grain is fed at up to 50% by weight of the supplement where silage is at 60% digestibility, and at 30% by weight of the supplement where silage approaches 65% digestibility.
Providing silage-based supplements may require more labour and handling than that required for grain diets, depending on farm resources.
A small area of irrigated pasture of good quality, or a saved lucerne or clover paddock, will provide that quality supplement needed to top off calves. An oat crop or sown millet paddock could be used to finish calves.
Where paddock feed is limited to poor-quality dry feed or cereal stubble, calves need additional protein. A supplement with 14% crude protein is required for good growth. In southern areas, high-protein grains such as lupins and peas are used to lift the protein content of the growth supplement. Cottonseed meal is the preferred source in the north of the State. Depending on price, other palatable protein concentrates could be used.
In northern NSW, molasses and protein meal and urea mixes will ensure calves grow well and look 'fresh', although calves will not achieve the finish of grain-supplemented calves. Nevertheless, these mixes are ideal for calves destined for feedlots.
Where paddock feed quality continues to decline and drought appears imminent, an early decision should be made as to whether to sell the calves as forward stores or to wean them straight into a feedlot.
Best results are obtained by starting calves on a creep feed before they lose condition.
Grains or pellets should be introduced to calves slowly, before large quantities are made available in self-feeders. Calves should be observed closely to assess how they are taking the supplement.
It is important for calves to be vaccinated with 5-in-1 vaccine and to receive a second injection 4–6 weeks later. This gives them sufficient protection against clostridial diseases, some of which are likely to occur with changes in diet.
In some situations, drenches for internal parasites (fluke and worms) may be necessary.
For many vealer producers, creep feeding has become routine management practice, ensuring that calves are sold in prime condition and command top prices regardless of season. The economics need careful consideration, but the strategy is particularly effective in dry years. In such conditions, well-finished calves will more than pay their way.
Creep feeding will help ensure vealer calves hit the specification for MSA-graded beef more consistently.
For more detailed information on formulating rations and budgeting creep feeding proposals, consult your District Livestock Officer (Beef Cattle).
This Agfact is based on an original publication written by Bob Wilton, formerly of NSW Agriculture.