Cool, dry conditions across most of Alberta last month slowed forage growth in pastures and hay fields, says a beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“If it stays dry the amount of growth will be limited and it is possible that pastures will run out much earlier than normal,” Barry Yaremcio said in May.
“In general, 70 per cent of total forage growth occurs before the 15th of July. If significant amounts of rain do not come soon, total growth could be compromised.”
One strategy for stretching limited forage supplies is to creep feed calves throughout the summer. Calves that are 45 to 60 days old can digest grains and use the nutrients to improve growth rates. An Ontario Ministry of Agriculture fact sheet indicates that on poor pastures, for every five pounds of creep feed consumed, calf growth rates improve by one pound. A second advantage of creep feeding calves is that more grass is available for the cow.
“Calves weighing less than 700 pounds eat grain slowly and chew the material sufficiently that processing is not required,” said Yaremcio. “Average daily gain and feed conversion efficiency is equal to that of processed grain.”
However, using whole oats or barley as the sole ingredient in a creep ration for small calves does not work. A creep ration requires 14 to 16 per cent protein to “frame out” the skeleton properly and to develop muscle. Intakes generally are in the range of two to three pounds a day for 350-pound calves and can get as high as eight pounds a day when the calves are 600 to 700 pounds. A recipe for a homegrown creep feed is to include split or cracked peas at 35 per cent of the mix with oats or barley (or a combination of the two grains). If wheat is to be part of the creep feed, inclusion rate should not exceed 20 to 25 per cent of the mix to minimize the chance of acidosis. If no additional protein is added to the creep feed, it is possible to have short, fat calves that could be discounted at the auction market come fall.
Another option is a commercially prepared creep ration. These products should contain a minimum of 75 per cent Total Digestible Nutrients and again, 14 per cent to 16 per cent protein content is required. Screening pellets generally have lower energy content than grain and do not deliver the necessary energy needed to get the additional gains on the calves.
“Creep feeding the calves for the majority of the grazing season can result in 25 to 100 pounds of additional gain compared to animals that are not supplemented,” said Yaremcio. “If 700- to 800-pound calf prices stay at the current price of $2.85 a pound for steers, this could increase the value of the calf by $70 to $285 per calf. It’s a good return on investment.”