With a dry start to the summer, is creep feeding right for your operation?

Haley Shoemaker, OSU Extension AGNR Educator, Columbiana and Mahoning Counties (originally published in the Ohio Farmer on-line)

When deciding to creep feed, consider more than just calf value.

Dry spells have a way of making even the most seasoned cattlemen second-guess their grazing and forage strategies.  With a large portion of the state experiencing moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions to start the summer grazing season, many producers are exploring their options to compensate for pastures that may not be bouncing back as quickly as needed in order to provide ample nutrition to growing calves and lactating cows.

As of June 12th, Ohio’s topsoil moisture was categorized as 35% very short and 42% short, with subsoil moisture ranked 17% and 53% respectively.  With reduced soil moisture comes reduced energy to the plant, which leads to slowed recovery of the root systems, and ultimately minimal plant growth.  Generally, allowing pastures to be grazed below 3 inches will amplify the effects of drought conditions, and will consequently make it more challenging for the stand to grow once moisture is available.  Knowing this, the task is now to realistically evaluate the capacity of our pastures and determine which management practices may be practical to addressing the possible nutrition gap in our herds.

For some, supplementing dry pastures and decreased forage growth may come in the form of creep feeding.  Now, there are obvious points to consider when determining whether creep feeding is right for your operation and management style – for this practice to be valuable to your herd, the cost of the feed and added management must be less than the value gained.

In conversation with a local cattleman recently, creep feeding is sometimes seen as an opportunity for a “poor dam to look damn good”.  However, in the case of creep feeding due to drought-like conditions, it is worth noting that while creep feed does provide nutritional value to calves, data suggests that the nutrient requirement from the dam is not lessened – in other words, creep feeding is meant to help replace nutrients normally gained from forage, and the cow is still responsible for holding up her end of the bargain through lactation.  This being said, if conditions merit, early weaning may be an option to reduce stress on the cow, however this should only be done in concurrence with the ability to then feed the calves to their desired weaning or sale weight.

So, how do we as cattle producers make lemonade from the dry weather “lemons” we’ve been thrown thus far?  First comes the consideration of nutrient needs and correlating stage of the calf.  For spring calves still on the dam, rations should be dense with energy and protein, as young calves will not eat large quantities of grain until later when their rumen is larger in size.  According to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, a 220-pound calf would need to consume approximately 7 pounds of milk, creep feed, and forage, in order to gain 2 pounds per day.  This may sound straightforward, however consumption of the grain is reliant on a couple factors – one being palatability.  Many pelleted creep feeds are designed to be palatable, uniform, and create minimal dust, however non-pelleted feeds are also an option, so long as they meet the aforementioned criteria.  To prevent over-eating, the addition of bulky grains or salt can limit consumption and keep calves from becoming over conditioned.

For all these efforts to pay out, the implementation of creep feeding also needs to make sense to your operation economically.  Calculating the value of any added gain from creep feeding can be done by considering weight difference of the calves, value per pound, and costs of the feed itself, as well as labor and equipment.

Incorporating values reflective of today’s markets into the below formula can give you a glimpse of whether creep feeding may be profitable for your operation.  While the following example includes only feed cost for the sake of easy math, be sure to adapt this to reflect your regional values and remember that your labor and equipment cost should be considered as well.

For Example:

  1. A 525-pound calf sells for $2.30/lb, and a 600-pound calf sells for $2.20/lb.
    • 525 lb x $2.30/lb = $1,207.50
    • 600 lb x $2.20/lb = $1,320
  2. Weight difference between calves is 75 pounds
  3. $1,320 – $1,207.50 = $112.50
    • $112.50/75 = $1.50 (value of added gain/pound)
  4. Estimate cost of creep feed at $300/T (adjust as needed). This is equal to $0.15/lb.
    • If the calf required approximately 6 pounds of feed to equal 1 pound of gain, the calf would have needed 450 pounds of grain (75 pounds x 6 pounds).
    • 450 lb x $0.15/lb = $67.50 Cost of Feed
  5. What’s your return?
    • $112.50 – $67.50 = +$45

In this scenario, the producer would be seeing a return of approximately $45 per calf – individual costs and prices will influence the return or lack thereof experienced on your operation.

There are a lot of factors beyond this simple calculation that determine whether creep feeding is right for your operation including forage condition, calf nutritional requirements, and market gain, but the bottom line is – it needs to agree with your bottom line.


  • Rasby, R. J., and Niemeyer, S. W. (2011). Creep Feeding Beef Calves. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension
  • 2023, June 12. National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Progress Report, USDA