Creep feeding calves yields 4:1 payback

Creep-feeding suckled calves will increase costs, but it also provides a significant return on investment.

Keeping a tight grip on feed costs is a top priority for every beef producer, but a suckler herd in Co Durham has seen a significant cost benefit from the improved performance of its calves after creep feeders were put out as soon as spring-born calves hit the ground.

Alan Medd, who runs a beef and sheep unit at West Whorley Hill, Winston, Darlington, made the decision to creep-feed as soon as calving started in the spring. And after a summer of incessant rain he’s even more convinced the extra feed costs were worth it.

“Everyone’s conscious about saving costs, but profitability is driven by efficiency, so there’s no point in making cuts when they end up being false economies. We were advised to start feeding creep from day one and, while I admit I was sceptical, I’m now totally convinced the costs were well justified,” said Mr Medd.

The farm, which carries 500 breeding ewes and buys in 200 black-and-white bull calves for finishing as well as running a 100-cow suckler herd, staged a demonstration organised by the British Charolais Cattle Society and Keenan Rumans.

It was on the advice of Keenan Rumans nutritionist Seth Wareing that the farm’s unconventional approach to creep feeding has resulted in a 15% improvement in growth rates of spring-born suckled calves.

The creep mix, costing £120/t, was fed from April. It comprised home-grown cereals, soya hulls, soya meal and pot-ale syrup and was offered until housing. Total feed intake of spring-born calves has been about 200kg and they achieved an extra 100kg of weight by weaning compared with the performance of calves when creep was introduced later in summer.

“The results are impressive and prove it’s more profitable to get the best possible feed conversion efficiency while the calves are in their early stages of growth. To reach those same levels of weight gain in the post-weaning stage would require four times more feed,” said Mr Wareing.

Spring-born Charolais-sired calves out of Limousin-cross cows averaged 320kg at six months old, a daily liveweight gain of 1.5kg a day. Heifers averaged 275kg, or 1.3kg a day.

By weaning time at nine months old bull calves are projected to have gained an extra 150kg liveweight and heifers another 100kg compared with typical weights achieved on the farm when creep was offered later.

“That represents a 4:1 return on feed costs for the bulls and 3:1 for the heifers,” said Mr Wareing, who urged suckled calf producers not to undervalue the benefits to cows when creep was introduced soon after calving.

“Fertility is a big issue in many suckler herds. This year Mr Medd’s herd had 98% of cows in-calf within nine weeks. Cows were turned out on to good grazing and, because calves were taking creep, cows were on a rising plane of nutrition – and that boosted fertility and conception.

“Cows have maintained good body condition despite bad summer weather and will be wintered cheaply on 17kg silage and about 4kg of straw a head a day. The aim is to reduce energy intake and allow them to lose some condition (about 0.5 of a condition score) before calving,” he said.

“But we’ll adjust feeding during winter and if cows need to lose more condition we’ll feed up to 6kg of straw. The amount of silage fed to cows during housing is now substantially less because they start the winter carrying more flesh.”

Mr Medd agreed the system had worked. “It does look like a big cost, but to get a 4:1 return on the bulls just proves how much potential for early growth can be missed. I don’t think cutting costs for the sake of it makes the job any more profitable.

“Young spring-born calves weren’t hitting the feeders hard unless weather was bad. When they are getting enough milk in the early stages they are contented, but at those tricky times when they might not be getting all the milk they need they were compensating for it with dry feed and that’s where this system has paid off.”

David Benson, chief executive of the British Charolais Cattle Society, said the early creep system had suited the Charolais cross calves.

“Growth is the hallmark of the Charolais. This system has highlighted how much potential for growth these young calves have. Putting on an extra 150kg by weaning time proves what they are capable of.”