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Creep feeding or early weaning when forage is limited

The drought has eased up a bit with the recent precipitation. Despite that, the drought conditions have cow/calf producers weighing management options such as creep feeding and earlier weaning depending on the situation. If cow milk production is low because of lack of forage growth in pastures, it often is better to feed the calf directly rather than to bring feed to the cow. This means weaning the calf as opposed to creep feeding.

Creep feeding would not be expected to reduce forage demand of cows and might or might not reduce the calf forage intake. Dry cows only require 60 percent of the energy of a lactating cow and consume 60 percent less water. Forage intake is 30 percent less for dry cows compared to lactating cows. Thus, when pasture and water supplies are short, earlier than normal weaning reduces pressure on the pasture and allows supplemental feed to go directly to the calf.

Young weaned calves are extremely efficient in their gains, more in the range of 3 to 4 pounds of feed per pound of gain compared to 6 pounds of feed to 1 pound of gain at a traditional weaning age. If facilities and resources allow it is generally advantageous to feed the young calves for a period of time before selling because of this efficiency. This is not to be confused with efficiency of gain during creep feeding, which can be as much as 8 to 10 pounds of feed to a pound of gain depending on the type of creep feed.

How much forage can be saved by early weaning? Expect for every 2.5 days the calf is weaned, there should be one more day of grazing for the cow. Or stated another way, approximately 10 pounds of forage is conserved for each day a calf is weaned.

Can you supplement cows on pasture to make pasture go further? The results from feeding on pasture are highly variable and are dependent on what is fed. One study found for each pound of the 45:55 ratio of wet distillers grains (WDGS) to grass hay mix consumed by cows, the mix replaced 0.22 pounds of the grazed forage. However a 30:70 WDGS:wheat straw treatment almost replaced grazed forage on a 1:1 basis. The cost of feeding and potential damage to the pasture at feeding sites also must be considered.

Early weaned calves can weigh as much as calves remaining on the dam until a traditional weaning age if provided well-designed rations. Rations for early weaned calves should be energy dense and highly palatable, free from fine particles or those that can be sorted. Avoid low-quality forages, grain screenings, and moldy or dusty feeds. Producers without good mixing resources might find commercial starter rations useful for the first couple of weeks.

When calves are less than 4 months of age at weaning, they still have passive immunity acquired from colostrum. Work with your veterinarian to adapt your normal vaccination procedures for early weaning. In a herd with an existing good herd health program, early weaning does not create more health challenges than weaning at a traditional age, and producers often state calf health is better. Creep feeding prior to weaning to teach calves to eat and low stress weaning methods might be beneficial. Access to water, appropriate height feed bunks and tight fences are important to successfully manage these young calves.

Calves can be weaned as early as 40 days without the need for a milk replacer as the rumen will be developed by this point, although their appetite for concentrates might be a concern. If cows are thin and forage conditions are poor, early weaning might be needed to get cows to cycle and rebreed in a timely fashion. This particularly could be true for 2-year-old cows.

Creep feeding should be considered when the goal is to increase weight of calves at weaning. Care must be taken to avoid overly fleshy calves. The decision to creep feed should depend on whether the value of the additional weight gain (i.e. [500 lbs x $2.27] - [400 x $ 2.44] = $159), exceeds the costs (feed, labor, equipment). These prices were projected using the spreadsheet at

Type of creep feed will determine actual intake and performance. Creep feeding can be useful to get calves eating prior to weaning or to improve calf weaning weights. Creep feeding will have a minimal effect on conserving pasture resources compared to weaning. Early weaning will enable cows to regain body condition prior to winter weather, which will reduce their wintering costs.

* Information provided by Sandy Johnson, Extension beef specialist, and Glynn Tonsor, Extension livestock marketing specialist.

Stacy Campbell is agriculture

Extension agent in Ellis County.