By Sandy Johnson
Creep feeding as a management tool has been around for a long time. And it has both its proponents and its detractors. But does drought change the economics of replacing forage with supplement for both the cow and her calf?
During drought, many people often look to creep feeding to support calf weaning weights. If creep feeding could decrease the nursing pressure on the cow and lower milk production, presumably the feed needed by the cow would be reduced. Additionally, this may allow the cow’s body condition and reproductive performance to improve.
Unfortunately, research does not support these assumptions. Calves receiving creep feed will spend just as much time nursing as those without creep feed and daily milk production is not changed. That holds true for situations when forage availability is relatively normal or limited.
Creep feeding is a tool most applicable to cow-calf producers who want to increase weights of calves marketed at weaning. As with any tool, there are situations where it fits and where it does not. Factors that should be evaluated before creep feeding include the cost of the feed, expected efficiency of gain based on the type of feed, the difference in value at marketing considering the price slide and forage conditions.
The preference for the calf seems to be milk, creep feed and then forage. When forage quality is low, creep feeding can make a bigger difference in weight gain because the feed is much higher in energy than the forage.
Conversely, when forage quality is very high, creep feeding may only have a minimal impact on gain. Drought’s impact on forage quality is variable based on the timing, type of forage and the extent of the stress. Nutrient density can be higher in drier years because the reduction in stem growth may exceed the reduction in leaf growth.
Both quality and quantity of forage available are critical in animal performance. If drought is limiting quantity of forage and, subsequently, milk production, creep feeding will help calf performance. However, if forage availability is so low that milk production is reduced, early weaning would conserve cow body condition and reduce forage and water demand for lactation.
This may allow cows to remain on pasture longer without overgrazing and should reduce feed and the overall cost to have cows in appropriate body condition at calving. A short period of creep feeding may benefit the weaning transition and increase early intake of the weaning ration.
Sandy Johnson is an Extension livestock production specialist with Kansas State University.