Offering ad-lib concentrates to spring-born calves can increase weaning weights by up to 25kg, reckons SAC beef consultant Iain Riddell.

“Producers who have regularly fed calves from early August have identified several key benefits to supplementing calves with creep, not least reduced incidence of pneumonia.”

By providing a familiar feed at weaning, such as creep, weaning check can be minimised considerably, resulting in a better weight gain post-weaning, he adds. “Feed conversion efficiency can improve by up to 4:1, with 4kg creep providing 1kg weight gain, comparing well in terms of feed efficiency with other feed sources.”

Minimising the check at weaning means weights can be maintained through to turnout, resulting in quicker finishing times and saving both feed and other costs involved, such as housing and bedding.

“When calves are fed creep eight weeks before weaning, they have the potential to be 30kg heavier at turnout,” says Mr Riddell.

When introducing creep to calves, age, growth potential and grass availability all have a bearing. “For April-born calves, creep can be introduced at 4-5 months old in August or September, as a general rule of thumb.”

Checked daily

And while many producers consider creep feeding in the field to be too much hassle, Mr Riddell says stock need to be checked daily regardless. Using larger hoppers, whichcan be filled by a loader bucket and which require less refilling is one way of simplifying the system.

Even when calves are kept for finishing or as replacements, this does not negate the need for creep, he adds. “In terms of growth rate, calves kept as replacements probably don’t require feeding. But animals will all benefit from the reduced weaning check and diminished risk of pneumonia after housing.

“Feeding replacement heifers due to calve at two years old enables them to hit target weights of 65% mature weight quicker at weaning,” adds Mr Riddell.

There are alternative strategies which can be adapted to work on a number of different systems, he explains. “The traditional method – feeding from 8-10 weeks before weaning – works well on systems which can gradually build up levels fed to calves, either using troughs or creep feeders.

Eat more

“By introducing creep at a slow introductory level, calves will gradually eat more, with heifers peaking at about 2kg a head a day and steers or bulls potentially eating as much as 3-4kg on an ad-lib basis,” says Mr Riddell.

For intensively finished bull calves, the sooner creep is introduced the better, he adds. “Creep can be introduced 10-12 weeks before weaning. When creep is introduced at a young age, calves don’t gorge themselves as much as they would when they are older, reducing incidence of acidosis, particularly on bruised barley mixes.”

When it is difficult to introduce creep to the system – either because of labour constraints or set-up, or if mothers are particularly milky breeds – even feeding creep four to five weeks before weaning can act to reduce weaning setbacks and the pneumonia incidence.

Introducing initially lower intakes also acts to reduce the risk of acidosis. “Cracking rather than milling cereal grains and increasing crude protein for the first few days also minimises the risk. Furthermore, when calves are introduced to creep at a later stage, the diet fed should contain a greater amount of fibre, like beet pulp, or a feed with less starch, such as maize gluten.”

Different feeds 

Further to these options, a range of different feeds can be used, including whole light barley, bruised barley, urea-treated wheat as well as compound feeds. “Bear in mind the aim is to provide extra energy rather than protein, as protein should be readily available from cows’ milk and late summer grass. If either is suspected to be deficient, then increase the crude protein content to about 14% freshweight.

“Keeping creep feeders topped up prevents overeating and allows a more level intake. Also, bear in mind that a general purpose vita­min and mineral mix should, ideally, be included at 2.5% of the ration,” advises Mr Riddell.