Creep Feeding Calves

Darrell Rankins, Jr.
Extension Nutritionist - Beef Cattle

Creep feeding is the practice of offering nursing calves the opportunity to consume feeds other than those being offered to their dams. The decision to creep feed beef calves prior to weaning should be based on a number of factors. These factors include: method of creep feeding, cost, resulting increase in performance, initial weight of calf, value of weight gain and easing the transition through weaning. If you wean light-weight calves then creep feeding may be an economical way to increase pounds of calf marketed. If you consistently wean calves in excess of 600 pounds and sell them directly off of the cow, then creep feeding may offer limited advantages for your operation. However, if you retain those heavy calves in a backgrounding/preconditioning program then creep feeding may offer advantages during this phase. The idea that creep feeding is simply feeding a free-choice grain mix to increase weaning weights is an over-simplification.

The efficiency at which the creep feed is used for additional calf gain is the important factor. For example, the 600-pound weanling previously described was probably receiving abundant quantities of milk and high-quality forage, thus creep feeding that calf simply replaces the forage intake with supplement intake and the resulting efficiency of added gain is very poor. Thus the best creep feed is one that provides significant amounts of added gain per pound of supplemental feed.

Numerous studies have been conducted where calves were given free-choice access to a grain-based creep feed. In most of these trials the efficiency of creep feeding was poor. In most instances the conversion was greater than 8 pounds of feed per additional pound of gain. In order to be cost effective the grain would need to be cheap and calf prices high with this conversion rate. Some studies have actually reported as high as 15 pounds of feed per additional pound of calf gain while creep feeding. Another pitfall associated with creep feeding in this manner is the possibility of acidosis as a result of the calf consuming large quantities of starch from these grain-based creep feeds. Creep feeding in this manner will also produce fleshy calves which will reduce the value of the calf (price per pound) relative to a calf of equal weight and not fleshy.

To increase this efficiency of conversion some producers have implemented a limit-fed creep feeding system. Research has been conducted at various locations on the use of limit-fed creep feeding. In a Kansas study, researchers compared a limit-fed energy creep feed and a limit-fed protein creep feed to no creep feed. The creep feeds were corn gluten feed-based with added soybean meal and grain sorghum to achieve either 16 or 36% protein. In an Illinois study, workers compared limit feeding corn or soyhulls versus free-choice corn or soyhulls and then compared the corn to the soyhulls. Results from the two studies are shown below:

Kansas Study
Control Energy Creep Feed Protein Creep Feed
Daily gain, lb 1.52 1.74 1.80
Daily creep intake, lb ---- 1.40 1.10
Lb feed/lb added gain ---- 6.36 3.93
Postweaning gain (53 d) 2.31 2.49 2.49


Illinois Study - Limited vs Unlimited
Control Limited  Unlimited
Daily gain, lb 1.46 2.03 2.29
Daily creep intake, lb ---- 2.20 5.03
Lb feed/lb added gain ---- 3.86 6.06
Postweaning gain (77 d) 0.93 1.52 1.56


Illinois Study - Corn vs Soyhulls
Corn  Soyhulls
Daily gain, lb 2.16 2.07
Daily creep intake, lb 3.90 3.37
Lb added gain 5.57 5.52
Postweaning gain (77 d) 1.61 1.23


In the Kansas study creep feed intake was limited by incorporation of 2 to 7% salt over the course of the 60-day study. In the Illinois study intake was limited by addition of 0 to 15% salt over the 113-day trial.

We evaluated the use of corn and soyhulls as creep feeds in Alabama as well; unfortunately these two feedstuffs were used in different years so a direct comparison was not performed. The creep feed was offered free-choice from late-June through mid-Sept (84 days) over two summers. Results are below:

Auburn Study - Year 1
Control Corn
Daily gain, lb 1.90 2.34
Daily creep intake ---- 6.00
Lb feed/lb added gain ---- 13.6


Auburn Study - Year 2
Control Soyhulls
Daily gain, lb 2.02 2.77
Daily creep intake ---- 11.5
Lb feed/lb added gain ---- 15.3


Points to Ponder: The following is a summary for you to consider and determine which strategy best fits your operation.

1) Situation. Consistently wean heavy calves and keep for backgrounding.

Possible Strategy. Offer a free-choice energy feed that is low in starch (e.g., soyhulls) for 25 to 50 days prior to weaning in order to get post-weaning benefits. If consumption levels quickly exceed 6 to 8 pounds then consider limiting the creep feed.

2) Situation. No backgrounding, sell calves at weaning.

Possible Strategy. Limit feed either a protein creep feed at a level of about 1 pound per day or an energy creep feed at about 3 pounds per day.

Further considerations

a. compare the price of the energy vs protein feed being used

b. must creep feed for at least 60 days to get significant response

c. calves should not be overly fleshy with limited creep

d. efficient feed conversions will usually make it profitable

e. difficult to get desired consumption levels with calves - need to start by offering the feed in an area that is frequented by the herd and monitor intake FREQUENTLY. Once consumption levels increase then gradual addition of salt can be used to control to desired amount. Calves are quite sensitive to salt and will respond quickly so be careful.

Economic Considerations: An economic assessment of creep feeding can become quite complex. The following factors were used in this example. A ten-year summary of Alabama price trends shows on average that a 450-pound calf will be worth approximately $8/cwt more than a 550-pound calf. An Oklahoma study reported in 1998 showed that fleshy calves were discounted approximately $2.50/cwt relative to average calves.


1) No creep feed.

Sell a 525-pound steer @ $100/cwt = $525

2) Free-choice creep feed

Sell a 585-pound steer @ $92.70/cwt = $542.30 (market price adjustments: additional weight, -$4.80/cwt; fleshiness, -$2.50/cwt) $100/cwt - $4.80 - $2.50 = $92.70/cwt.

Assume they had an 8:1 conversion on the creep feed = 480 pounds of feed at $70/ton = $16.80 feed costs

Net result: $542.30-$16.80 = $525.50

3) Limit-fed creep feed

Sell a 565-pound steer @ $96.80/cwt = $546.92 (market price adjustments: additional weight, -$3.20/cwt; no adjustment for fleshiness with limit feeding)

Assume they had a 4:1 conversion of the creep feed = 160 pounds of feed at $70/ton = $5.60 feed costs

Net result: $546.92-$5.60 = $541.32