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Will's Windmill column: Do the math before creep feeding calves

Karl Hoppe, Extension livestock specialist at North Dakota State University, offers beef producers some advice on creep feeding calves, and making decisions that could affect their profit margin when they sell those calves months from now.

One of those decisions is whether to supply the calves with creep feed. That's essentially any food a producer provides calves while they're still nursing. The amount of creep feed required to produce the desired result in the calves is a major factor producers must consider when deciding whether creep feed is cost-effective, according to Karl Hoppe, Extension Service area livestock specialist at North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center.

"Make sure you do the math with the right feed conversions," he advises.

Producers must keep in mind they will need more creep feed if they are using it as a replacement for pasture grasses than as a supplement, he says. For example, he estimates calves would need 5-7 pounds of creep feed for 1 pound of weight gain if creep feed is a supplement. However, if it's replacing pasture grasses, calves might need 8 to 9 pounds of creep feed for 1 pound of weight gain.

"So if the pasture condition is good to exceptional, then be sure to use a creep feed formulated to supplement grass, rather than replace grass," Hoppe says.

Favorable and profitable conversions of 5-7 pounds of creep feed to 1 pound of gain are typical where pasture forage is limited and feed is balanced with nutritional requirements, says John Dhuyvetter, area livestock specialist at NDSU's North Central Research Extension Center in Minot. Such conversions also are likely for calves of first-calf heifers and very old cows where milk and grass don't meet calves' growth potential.

Hoppe recommends producers start calves on creep feed as soon as possible to avoid digestive upset.

"I'm always concerned when pastures become overgrazed and then creep feed is introduced," he says. "This can lead to extremely high intakes of creep feed and result in sickness and possible death."

When producers plan to sell their calves is another big part of the creep feed equation.

"If you sell calves at weaning, the extra weight they've gained on creep feed needs to be worth more than the extra cost of the feed," Hoppe says.

Producers also should consider the source of the creep feed. Commercially produced creep feed is more expensive than the home-gown varieties. The commercial product might be less costly in the long run, though, because it will result in fewer digestive upsets and it contains correctly formulated rations, Hoppe says.

The type of creep feed used could be another issue. He suggests using creep feeds containing higher amounts of protein and fiber and lower amounts of starch as a supplement to grass. These creep feeds improve the digestibility of grass. Calves eating creep feeds that are starch-based, or mostly grain, will substitute creep feed for grass.

"Creep feeding in most all situations will increase calf weights and herd revenue," Dhuyvetter says.

However, calculating profit margins from creep and alternative feeds are very important with today's high feed costs, he says. To calculate the feed cost per pound of additional weight from supplemental feeding, multiply the cost per pound of feed by the projected rate of conversion (pounds of creep feed consumed per pound of added weight gain).

Since heavy calves usually sell for less per pound than lighter calves, the value of added pounds from creep feeding often is less than market price. If there are small or no price slides, this is sometimes the case when cattle feeders are aggressive bidders for early heavy calves capable of finishing for the April or earlier seasonally high markets. Then the added weight can be valued near market price.

"More typically, we see a 6 to 8 cent per hundredweight price slide associated with increasing calf weights, making the added pounds worth about 65 percent of market price," Dhuyvetter says.

Creep feeding is not likely to pay when conversions are high, in situations where pastures provide good nutrition and cows are milking well, he adds. It also is of questionable value for heifers that will be retained and developed for replacements, and calves that will be backgrounded for an extended time post-weaning.

For Hoppe and Dhuyvetter, the bottom line is producers need to consider all the variables and spend a little time with their calculators before making a decision on creep feed. For more information, please contact me: Will Yliniemi, Hubbard/Becker County Extension educator, by phone at 1-218-732-3391 or 1-218-846-7328, by cell at 1-218-252-1042, or by e-mail at

'Rules of thumb' for fertilizing vegetables

All vegetables require nutrients to grow and mature. After you till, add compost, well-rotted manure or other organic matter and a complete fertilizer in the spring before planting, it is important to continue a good fertility program on your vegetable garden.

Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers require frequent applications during the growing season to keep producing fruit. For the specific needs of sweet corn, cole and vine crops, in mid-season, apply a side dressing of a 23-0-15 analysis fertilizer or similar product at a rate of 1/2 pound for each 50 feet of row.

When the first fruit is about 2 inches in diameter, incorporate one teaspoon of 10-10-10 into the top 1/2 inch of soil at 8 to 10 inches around the plant and water thoroughly. Avoid heavy applications of nitrogen as this may stimulate vigorous vine or leaf growth that delays blooming and fruit set. In midseason for carrots and other root crops apply a side dressing of a complete (such as a 10-10-10) fertilizer at a rate of 1/2 pound for every 25 feet of row.

If you live next to a lake, river or wetland, use a phosphorus free fertilizer. Phosphorus should only be applied to gardens if you have a soil test that indicates that phosphorus is needed. Also, do not use "weed and feed" type fertilizers on any of your vegetables, shrubs, and flowers as they have weed killers that will kill your broadleaf plants.

For more information on fertilizing your garden, contact your local Master Gardeners or contact me by phone at 1-218-732-3391 or 1-218-846-7328, by cell at 1-218-252-1042, or by e-mail at