Quality Starter Fuels Rumen Development – Dr. Noah Litherland, University of Minnesota
Research has repeatedly shown that quality calf starter plays a big role in calf performance. Understanding the biology behind this strategy can help make the most of your feeding program.
Dr. Noah Litherland is a dairy cattle nutritionist with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science. Litherland, who has a passion for calf nutrition, said starter intake can have “magical effects” in terms of calf growth as it stimulates rumen development.
The changing rumen
A calf is born with a sterile rumen, completely void of the bacteria, protozoa and fungi populations found in adult animals. This means the calf cannot ferment forages and must rely on a liquid diet for its nutrients.
But it doesn’t take long before the calf becomes curious and starts to nibble on things in its environment. As it does, rumen microbes begin to develop, slowly at first and then rapidly. These rumen microbes produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs), a significant energy source for cattle. In turn, VFAs also stimulate the development of epithelial tissue, which is the finger-like tissue that coats the rumen and allows for efficient absorption of nutrients.
According to Litherland, this change has a significant impact on how the calf gets its energy for growth. As a fetal calf, it relies solely on the glucose in the dam’s blood. In its first month of life, the calf gets energy from glucose and long-chain fatty acids found in milk lactose and fat. But by two months, the calf is already crossing into the ruminant stage and getting most of its needed energy from the VFAs produced in ruminal fermentation.
“In three months, the calf goes through gigantic changes in energy sources,” Litherland said. “It’s like converting your car from coal to diesel to natural gas in three months.”
Litherland also said rumen development is important in meeting the calf’s protein needs as microbial protein from the rumen more closely matches the calf’s amino acid requirements than milk.
“Microbial protein is about as good as you can get for protein,” he said.
While the science behind calf starters and rumen development might seem complicated, the composition of a quality calf starter doesn’t have to be.
Litherland said he likes to see a simple texturized calf starter include whole or rolled corn, oats and a protein pellet. He said the pellet can be made of whole-roasted soybeans, but cautioned that beans are higher in fat, which can depress total intakes. He said research has not shown any advantages to feeding crude protein at a level higher than 18 percent.
Make sure the texturized starter has minimal fines. Litherland said a good test is to pick up a handful of the starter and blow over it. If it all stays in your hand and no dust flies away, it’s of good quality. Finally, keep the starter if fresh. Throw out any starter that has been in a pail more than a couple of days.
As Litherland reminded, water and starter intake are closely related. That’s why it’s important to continually offer free choice water after feeding milk. He recommended feeding warm water at least twice a day, more often during periods of heat stress.
Dividers between the starter and liquid pails help keep all of the feeds fresh and clean. And take a look at the position of those pails. A young calf might have to stretch pretty far to reach the starter in the bottom of the pail. Litherland said he likes to use shallow pails for young calves until they learn to easily eat from a bucket.
Another consideration – and a big area of research – is additional fiber in calf diets. Litherland said that supplemental forages do not have much value in the first 30 days of a calf’s life, but may be very beneficial at 60 days. He said current research is looking at the occurrence of ruminal acidosis in weaned calves and the effects supplemental forages may have in preventing this challenge.
Litherland concluded that a simple, but solid nutrition program can have significant impacts on calf performance. That’s especially true when it comes to starters and, as Litherland pointed out, “The more starter they eat, the faster they grow.”
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