Does Creep Feeding Make Sense?
By Scott Lake, UW Extension Livestock Specialist
It’s getting to that time of year when the calves are off to a really good start and growing well. I have a lot of friends around the state who are beginning to utilize creep feed for their calves. However, most, if not all of them, are raising show calves or purebred cattle. The benefits of creep feeding for these producers are obvious. Both show calves and purebred calves sell better when they are really full and fleshy. However, the question I am asking is, does creep feeding make sense for commercial cattlemen?
The main objective of creep feeding is to put additional weight on calves prior to weaning. There is a fine line as to how much weight should be gained. Calves that are too fleshy are often discounted in the feeder calf market. Therefore, a good creep feed will add pounds of weight without making the calves overly fleshy.
Whether a producer feeds creep or not is an economic decision. The scientific literature is full of research studies proving that creep feeding does in fact increase the weight of calves prior to weaning. In fact, the type of creep, including starch-based feeds compared to highly fermentable carbohydrates like distiller’s grains, can play a role in the type of weight a calf gains. That is a discussion for another time, but the point of this article is simply to discuss the potential merits of providing a creep feed to calves and to hopefully provide an example to help producers determine for themselves whether or not a creep feed should be considered in their own operations.
Some of the side benefits of creep feeding include an easier transition to feed at weaning, easier weaning itself and improvements in carcass quality, which could be economically beneficial to producers who retain ownership.
The down side to creep feeding is that calves can get overly fleshy, and it does not take off as much lactation pressure as one would think.
Research would suggest that calves typically consume about 3.5 pounds per head per day, with a range of two to six pounds per head per day, and gain an additional 0.3 pounds per day. Gain ranges from 0.15 to 0.65 pounds per day. As I sit here today, the futures contract for October delivered feeder cattle is sitting at $2.11 per pound.
The next question is how much is additional weight worth? How much profit can be realized with additional weight? Increased weight and prices sound good on paper, but how much profit will be realized after paying for expenses? Let’s go through an example to determine the real economic benefit of creep feeding.
The first step is to determine the value of the added gain due to creep feeding. Let’s assume calves would normally weigh 500 pounds at weaning and by creep feeding, calves will now weight 560 pounds. Using the spot futures market for October delivery, the price in this example for the 500-pound calf is $2.11. We will assume a 10-cent slide for the heavier calves, putting the 560-pound calf at $2.01.
I am hopeful that calf prices will be higher than these numbers in the fall, however, for this example it is the exercise not the numbers that are important.
Therefore the 500-pound calf is worth $1,055, and the 560-pound calf is worth $1,125.
It is extremely important to note that the value of the added weight is not equal to market value. As calves get heavier there is a spread that reduces price. The value of the difference in weight added due to creep feeding is determined by dividing the difference in price by the difference in weight.
In this example, the $70 difference in price is divided by the 60 pound difference in weight to give a value of $1.16 per pound of added weight.
The scientific literature would suggest calves on creep feed have a feed to gain of six to one. In other words, it requires six pounds of creep feed to gain one pound of weight. If these calves gained 60 pounds, it would require 360 pounds of creep feed per calf.
If the cost of the creep feed is $300 per ton, or 15 cents per pound, then the cost to put on the 60 pounds of weight would be $54. The amount of money generated from the additional weight is $70. The return value of creep feeding in this example is $16 per head.
It is important to note that in this example labor, fuel, equipment, etc. has not been factored in and would be extremely important to do so your own calculations.
Obviously in this example it is debatable as to whether or not creep feeding is financially beneficial. Your individual ability to lock in prices on calves and feed could give dramatically different numbers than those generated in this example. Again, the main point to this article is not to argue for or against creep feeding, but rather provide an example of how to determine if it makes sense economically.