Ask the Expert: Should I Feed Texturized or Pelleted Starter? – Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus

Posted on August 22, 2014 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock technical specialist

Question:  I’ve heard arguments on both sides.  Which is better?  Texturized or pelleted starter feeds?

A:  Since the early 1930s, researchers have evaluated the impact of calf starter grain formulation and physical form (texturized versus pelleted) on dry matter intake and calf growth.  There is still some debate about the concentration of fiber in starter grain, optimal ingredients for calf starter, and the physical form that results in the greatest intake.

The ultimate goal of calf nutritionists is to maximize starter grain intake prior to weaning to develop the rumen tissue and establish a productive rumen microbial population, which will result in the primary source of energy for the calf at weaning.  Starter grain in a well-developed rumen is fermented to volatile fatty acids (primary fuel source) and produces microbial protein, both of which aid in supplying nutrients for calf growth.  Additionally, microorganisms in a functioning rumen compete with potentially pathogenic organisms.

Consistently manufacturing high quality starter grain requires high quality ingredients, precision formulation, proper dedicated mixing equipment, and the knowledge to blend ingredients resulting in a high quality product.  Quality corn processing, gentle mixing to minimize the production of fines, and consistent application of liquid ingredients are just some of the factors needed to produce a quality texturized calf starter.  Texturized starter grain holds the majority of the starter grain market; however, a starter grain fed as a complete pellet has advantages in certain situations.

Similar to texturized feed, producing a quality pelleted starter grain begins with high quality ingredients, precision formulation and a dedicated pellet mill.  A blend of feed science technology and technique is required to consistently produce a quality pellet.  Factors such as ingredient profile, timing and amount of steam injection, selection of the correct pellet die, efficiency of cooling tower operation, and pellet handling and storage are just a few of the factors needed to produce a great pellet.

Results from one of the few studies directly comparing physical form of starter is described below in Table 1.  The authors concluded that physical form of starter altered calf performance in favor of texturized over pelleted grain.  It is important to note that calves were fed a low plane of nutrition from milk and were weaned abruptly and much earlier than is standard in the U.S.  Additionally, calves were housed in elevated stalls with no bedding.  This is a very important point as calves will often consume bedding (if bedded with straw or other palatable forage), resulting in adjusted fiber intake.  Interestingly, straw consumption by nursery calves was associated with an increase in starter grain intake (Castells et al., 2012).

In summary, both texturized and pelleted starter grains have some clear advantages.  An important take-home message is that how you feed is just as important as what you feed.

Provide feed that is fresh, in appropriate amounts, and offered in clean feeders appropriately sized for your calves.  A balanced milk program and clean fresh drinking water are also important factors.  Future research should continue to evaluate the physical and chemical properties of starter grain.

Table 1.  Comparison of calf starter physical form (pellet versus texturized); Porter et al., 2007.  Bull calves were fed the same milk replacer, housed in elevated crates with no bedding, and weaned at 27 days of age.

Pelleted Texturized Standard error P-value
Bodyweight at birth 87.9 85.4 3.3 NS*
0- to 4-week gain, lb 8.6 9.8 0.1 NS
0- to 4-week starter intake, lb 17.9 20.6 3.0 NS
5- to 8-week gain, lb 28.4 36.4 0.1 <0.05
5 to 8-week starter intake, lb 84.3 100.4 10.9 <0.05
Week first ruminating 6.0 3.7 <0.05
Time spent ruminating, % 8.7 21.0 <0.05
Rumen pH 5.03 5.43 NS
DM digestibility, % 71.3 76.3 <0.05
NDF digestibility, % 39.7 51.9 <0.05
Crude protein digestibility, & 77.5 78.2 NS
*NS = not significant

Table 2. Advantages and disadvantages of texturized and pelleted calf starter grains.

Texturized starter Pelleted starter


  • Greater intake than pelleted grain
  • Greater nutrient digestibility (likely associated with greater rumen development
  • Maintains physical form better than complete pelleted feed during rain events
  • Contains more functional fiber to stimulate rumination
  • Allows for feeding of processed or whole grains (such as whole corn, rolled corn or steam-flaked corn)
  • Ease of flow in grain handling systems
  • Grain processing might increase digestibility of some ingredients
  • Reduced risk of feed sorting
  • More consistent nutrient intake
  • Increased feed density
  • Decreased molasses-associated fly challenges
  • Greater fiber concentration
  • Lower starch concentration


  • Higher risk for feed sorting than pelleted starter
  • Often contains less chemical fiber (NDF) than pelleted starter
  • Decreased saliva production associated with reduced feeding and ruminating time
  • Requires specialized manufacturing equipment
  • Maintaining a high-quality pellet might mean some limitations on ingredients and ingredient amounts
  • Pellet integrity tends to decrease during rain events
  • Increased grain processing may increase rate of passage and decrease total tract digestibility

Do you have a calf care question you’d like to ask our experts?  Email us to ask and you could win a $100 gift card if your question is selected for a future edition of Starting Strong.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care