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Creep Grazing Techniques Can Benefit Cattle Operations

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Creep grazing calves is a management practice allowing calves to graze designated areas separately from the cows where the forage quality is higher than the grazing pasture. This concept is similar to creep feeding calves, with the purpose being to increase weaning weights of calves, thus increasing their value at weaning. Generally, creep grazing can be performed less expensively than creep feeding. Creep grazing works best where soil/forage production capabilities are not limited by soil quality or environment. Since calves require a higher-quality diet than mature cows, creep grazing is beneficial only if the forages in the creep areas are of greater nutritive value than the grazing pasture.

There are several ways to incorporate creep grazing into an operational plan. One is by allowing calves access to adjacent pastures that have not been recently grazed. Specifically, in a management-intensive grazing system or intensive grazing system, the calves are allowed to creep graze in the pasture ahead of the cows in the rotation (if adjacent) or are allowed access to adjacent areas planted or managed specifically for the higher-quality forage production.

When nutritional conditions are adverse for calves, greater gains can be expected from creep grazing, assuming forage production is not limited. Expect greater gains from creep grazing legumes and annual grasses relative to allowing calves access to perennial pastures "in front" of the cow herd. If spring-calving cows are grazing perennial pastures such as bermudagrass or native range, good forages for creep grazing calves would be alfalfa, millet, sorghum-sudans, crabgrass and cowpeas. Alfalfa and crabgrass would not require planting annually once established. For fall-calving cows on fescue, cool-season annual grasses such as rye, wheat, oats and ryegrass work well, as would clovers in some environments. As with all management systems, the costs need to be carefully considered to determine if the benefit expected would exceed the expenses associated with planting and management of the creep grazing area.

When calves are small and the forage quality of perennial grasses is high, there is little benefit to creep grazing. However, when forage quality of perennial grass pastures declines with the advancing grazing season, growing calves creep grazing higher-quality annual forages or legumes during the last few months prior to weaning have a distinct nutritional advantage, resulting in greater calf gains. Forage quality of perennial forages declines more rapidly than annuals and legumes within a given season. Therefore, the most observable benefit of creep grazing occurs later in the growing season when the older (three months or older), larger calves are consuming a large amount of forage relative to their milk intake.

The amount of acreage required for creep grazing is highly dependent upon the production potential of the soils and the selected forage types. If planting or establishing a creep area, generally one acre will accommodate four to six calves, or more in some instances. As a rule of thumb, if areas within pastures are to be used, allocate about 10 percent of a pasture for creep grazing. It may be necessary to allow cows access to creep areas at the end of each grazing period to fully utilize and maintain uniformity within the pasture, especially in perennial forage grass pastures. This prevents the creep area from becoming decadent and overly mature over the duration of the grazing season.

Creep grazing is an easily implemented management practice for many cattle operations. When given access to forages such as annuals and legumes, the potential weight gain of creep grazing calves is improved, which means more weight at weaning. As with any management practice, a careful assessment of the benefits and associated expenses needs to be conducted before making the decision to implement creep grazing.