CREEP GRAZING FOR BEEF CALVES
Harold B. Rice, Curtis Absher and Larry Turner*
*Extension Feed Production Specialist Extension Beef Specialist and
Extension Agricultural Engineer, respectively.
Creep grazing calves on separate pastures
from cows can add pounds to calf weaning weights. In creep grazing, nursing
calves get special attention. They either graze before the cows do, getting
first choice of the more succulent, highly nutritious pasture, or they
have access to special pastures. They enter the special pastures through
gates with openings large enough for calves but too small for cows to get
through. In an alternative method, electric fences are positioned high
enough (36 to 42 inches) for calves to pass while cows cannot.
Why Creep Graze?
Recommended calving seasons for Kentucky
commercial cow/calf producers are generally spring, Feb. 15 - April 30
and fall, Sept. 1 - Nov. 1. These calving seasons result from breeding
periods, May 1 through July 20 and Nov. 20 through January 20, for spring
and fall, respectively. Pastures can be planned to produce nutrition adequate
to support high conception rates at these times. Pastures for breeding
can provide abundant, high quality feed for both the cow and the calf up
to the time calves are 3 to 4 months old. After cows are bred, in either
fall or spring, the availability and quality of forage usually declines.
Further, it is expensive and inefficient
to feed cows extra feed to produce more milk for calves late in the lactation
period. Calves depend on milk for the first 3 to 4 months of their lives
but after that age most of their gain comes from feed other than milk.
High quality forage can produce most of this gain. Creep grazing, therefore,
is an appropriate method to ensure that calves have access to high quality
forage and consequently increase weaning weights.
Heavy calves need more than milk. Spring
calves reach the critical age when milk is declining and high quality forage
is needed. However, if tall rescue is the predominant forage species, both
quantity and quality of pastures will have declined at the very time calves
need high quality forage most. Fall-born calves reach this age generally
in January and February, when there is little pasture growth. Therefore,
to maintain economical calf gains during this time period, producers have
3 choices: (1) creep feed grain, (2) creep feed high quality
forages, or, (3) feed both cows and calves abundantly.
Creep Feeding Options
Creep feeding grain can increase calf
weaning weights by 40 to 75 lb. However, the cost is high. Creep-fed calves
generally require 8 to 17 lb of grain for each pound of added gain, because
calves prefer eating readily available creep feed to grazing forages. Rather
than gain from creep feed being "added on," this gain comes from the calves'
eating grain "in place of" forages. Prevailing prices for grain and feeder
calves often make creep feeding with grain unprofitable.
Creep feeding is not without some problems.
(1) Creep-fed steer calves may get too fat to command top prices
as feeders if they are early maturing (genetically). Fat deposits in udders
of heifer calves kept for breeding may decrease their future milk production.
(2) In addition, creep feeding makes differences in weaning weights
between calves more difficult to attribute to genetics, so selection of
replacement heifers and breeding bulls becomes less accurate if based on
Creep Grazing Forage
Creep grazing high quality forages
produces additional weight gains with minimum cost. Possible advantages
of creep grazing are
• Increased weaning weight under
• Generally lower cost than creep
• Less labor and more convenience
than creep feeding grain.
• Allowing for increased stocking
rate of cow/calf units without sacrificing weaning weights. Because calves
3 to 4 month of age gain from high quality forage, forage replaces milk.
• Less dependence on persistent
• If creep grazing is practiced,
extra emphasis can be given to maintaining legumes in only areas which
will be creep grazed. For example, efforts can be targeted at allowing
increased weaning weights by renovating only the part of the pasture area
available to calves.
Creep gate plans (Figure
1 & Figure 2) are available
at County Extension Offices. However, any opening large enough for calves
to pass through but too small for cows can serve as a creep gate. Creep
gates range from 15 to 18 inches wide and from 36 to 42 inches high. The
18-inch width is recommended only for bigger calves, up to 600 lb, because
small cows may be able to pass through wider openings.
You can also provide for partial opening
of gates between pastures. A second gate post can be set 15 to 18 inches
from the permanent post or a rigid latch can keep the gate opened the desired
Electric fences high enough (36 to
42 inches high) for calves to pass under are effective and easy to use.
Because they are flexible and easy to adjust for height, electric fences
also allow producers to periodically ration graze calves on small areas
of pasture. The newer portable electric polyethylene and steel braided
wire fences are quick to set up and move and are versatile. Ease of movement
allows for changing the creep area frequently to maintain forage quality
and availability. (See Cooperative Extension publication ID-74, Planning
Fencing Systems for Intensive Grazing Management.) In areas where electric
power is not available small, low-cost battery chargers or solar powered
units can be used. In some cases, where calves have developed a high respect
for electric fences, it may be necessary to train calves to use "shock
proof' passes under the hot wire.
Electric Creep Gates
Electric creep gates can be easily
constructed to be used with permanent electric fencing (Figure
3). By using insulated handles at each end of the gate, the gate height
may be adjusted to allow creep grazing for different sizes of calves or
to close off the pasture from creep grazing.
Forages for Creep Grazing
The forage or forage combination that
is best suited for creep grazing will vary according to the season and
local conditions Regrowth of alfalfa and red clover hay fields provides
high quality creep grazing in the summer if moisture is adequate.
Table 1. Forages for Creep Grazing.
|Small Grains and/or
Summer annuals can be established in
tillable areas of permanent pastures or in rotation hay meadows and grain
fields. Millet, sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids grow rapidly
and produce high-quality forage.
For fall-born calves, stored forages
such as legume hay or protein-supplemented corn silage can be used as well
as grain-based creep rations. Grain and hay prices should determine the
creep ration annually. Cover crop pastures or intentionally planted small
grain pastures can also provide high quality calf creep. Interested producers
should get AGR-88, Producing Summer Annual Grasses for Emergency Supplemental
Forage, or AGR-63, Small Grains Pastures, from their County Extension Office.
The pasture area required to feed a
cow/calf unit varies from approximately .1 to 5 acres in Kentucky. What
portion of the total acreage is utilized by the calf is difficult to assess.
If creep grazing is used to increase the stocking rate, then the special
creep pasture set aside for calves must be large enough to supply most
of their feed requirements from 4 to 8 months of age.
Land production potential, forage type,
fertility and season all affect the size of acreage needed to provide adequate
forage. However, on the average creep pasture areas providing one acre
of forage for every 5 to 10 calves should suffice. This rate is appropriate
for pastures rotationally grazed and properly rested.
Locating the Creep Gate
Location of the creep gates should
allow the calves to advance graze or allow them access to a "special" pasture. Figure
4 illustrates some possible locations for such gates. Gate location
at the end of a fence line is desirable to reduce the bracing required.
The dashed fence lines in Figure 4 represent portable fence boundaries.
A single-wire portable fence can be set high enough, as discussed above,
to allow calves to graze in adjacent fields while preventing cows from
Locate creep gates near shade, water
or mineral feeders because calves may be reluctant to leave their mothers
and move through the gates into adjacent fields.
Starting Calves on Creep Pastures
When you first offer calves the special
pasture, it may also be helpful to let both cows and calves through the
creep gate for a short period. Calves will then return to the high quality
forage after cows have been removed. Calves' natural curiosity and growing
independence will usually be enough to entice them under the electric fences
or through creep gates and the high quality forage will keep them coming