With dry soil conditions the norm right now in Western Canada, creep-feeding calves might be a necessity for many ranchers this spring and summer.
Beef producers use creep feeders to supplement the diet of nursing calves when cows’ milk production is slowing down and the growing calves need additional nutrients in their diet.
Inadequate or poor quality forage can retard milk production, especially in dry years when pasture growth is stunted.
If spring rain delivers 50 to 75 millimetres of water, it could recharge the soil and spur pasture growth in many regions on the Prairies. However, pastures may take longer to recover in areas where the drought is the most severe, such as south-central Saskatchewan.
“There’s a lot of forage and pasture in that region. That won’t recover real quick, even with a lot of rain next spring. You need that fall rain to recover the root systems of those plants,” said Trevor Hadwen, agro-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada in Regina.
“The more severe the drought, the less quickly it can recover.”
Creep feeding calves with a dry grain mix usually occurs in dry years, when there is a lack of forage around. However, the feeders can be used for other reasons and in other scenarios.
Tom Hamilton, a former Ontario agriculture ministry beef specialist who died in 2017, had said that creep feeders:
- increase the growth rate of nursing calves
- reduce weaning stress on calves
- help young and thin cows enter the post-nursing period in better health
There is also the benefit to the pasture because the availability of creep feed can help with pasture growth.
“It is an option to bring grazing pressure down on a pasture that could use some rest,” said Murray Feist, ruminant nutrition specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture.
Feist said most producers have creep feeders, for use in dry years, but it’s hard to say how often they are used.
“(It) depends on the producer really, as it is an extra chore.”
There is also the key question of cost: does the cost of creep feeding make economic sense?
Producers need to pencil out the variables, cost of the creep ration, expected price for calves and the conversion rate of creep feed to additional gain to calculate the return on investment.
Rainfall and pasture condition must also be considered, Feist said.
“If a producer can source a creep supplement at a price that benefits weight gain and price of calf at time of sale, then yes, (use a creep feeder),” he said.
“If in a drought, then creep can provide pasture relief, and a combination of the two. And thirdly … if feed grain market prices are affordable and calf prices are strong, producers may choose to creep even if pasture pressure isn’t the main driver.
Alberta Agriculture has developed a creep feeding calculator to help ranchers work through all the variables.
It can be found at www.agric.gov.ab.ca/app19/calc/livestock/creepsheet.jsp.