Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0809 PD: Calf starter holds the key to proper growth

Susan Day Published on 18 May 2009

Laying the groundwork is an important part of any successful project. For growing young calves, the groundwork involves proper growth and development of the rumen. And no other feedstuff plays a larger role in rumen development than calf starter.

Adequate levels of protein and energy are critical for growing calves and preparing them for weaning. Calf starter provides up to 75 percent of your calf’s energy and protein in the first 12 weeks of life. By feeding a high-quality calf starter, containing 20 to 22 percent protein, you’re putting your calves on the right track for optimal performance.



Proper rumen development is necessary for performance later in life, but before rumen development can occur, calves must be encouraged to eat calf starter.

Getting them started
When it comes to stimulating calf starter consumption in young calves, remember “less is more.” Within the first two to three days of birth, start offering calves a small handful of fresh, high-quality and highly palatable calf starter. By week two, step up to two handfuls. The key is to encourage consumption of the feed while not overwhelming the calves or wasting starter. Be sure to collect all refusals and supply them with fresh feed every day.

Physical form of the calf starter is especially crucial for rumen development and to encourage rumination in calves. Research generally supports feeding texturized or pelleted versions of calf starters. Regardless of which you choose, it is important to offer your calves a starter with minimal fines. Calves don’t like fines and will not eat them. The more fines left in the bucket, the less grain they are consuming.

Molasses is a traditional flavoring agent used to improve palatability and encourage consumption. However, make sure your starter doesn’t have too much on it. Recent research conducted by Penn State University shows that high molasses content in calf starters might actually lead to reduced intake and growth. During the six-week study, calves fed a calf starter with 12 percent molasses consumed 22 percent less starter compared to calves fed a starter containing 5 percent molasses. Additionally, feeds high in molasses will attract more flies in the summertime. If available, look for calf starters that offer palatability enhancers beyond molasses.

Pay attention to the freshness of your calf starter supply. The longer it takes for you to feed out, the weaker the aroma, the dryer the molasses, thus the less appealing the feed is for calves. Many calf starters today include recommended feeding dates, so be sure to check for this and feed out older batches first.


Water’s critical role
In addition to feeding a high-quality, high-protein calf starter, clean, fresh water is also essential for proper rumen development to help calves absorb nutrients and achieve optimal structural growth and weight gain. Rumen development in young calves generally occurs during the first four to eight weeks of life. A calf is born with a small, underdeveloped, sterile rumen. Calf starter intake, working in tandem with water, helps to establish rumen bacteria necessary to transform feed nutrients into the protein and energy calves need to grow.

The bacteria also create fermentation of the starch, producing volatile fatty acids, which stimulate rumen papillae growth. The more starter a calf consumes earlier on, the more developed the rumen papillae becomes, enabling the calf to absorb nutrients more efficiently.

An article published by Penn State University reveals that it takes about 21 days from the first day a calf begins consuming starter for the rumen to develop. If the rumen doesn’t develop properly, calves will have difficulty digesting grain and forages at weaning, which will inhibit growth.

Hay should not be fed to young calves until they reach 12 weeks old. While it may seem encouraging to watch a calf begin to nibble on hay, in reality, hay fills the rumen quickly. This means that the calf doesn’t consume enough grain, which contains a much higher nutrient content than even the best-quality hay.

A practice that needs improving
Although it is clear that consumption of calf starter within the first two to three days after birth is essential for rumen development and overall structural growth and weight gain, dairy producers and calf growers are still waiting almost nine days to offer calf starter to their calves, according to the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Dairy 2007 survey.

In many cases, this is because dairy producers and calf growers offer young calves too much calf starter at their initial feeding. The calves become overwhelmed by the amount of starter and don’t eat it, which producers and growers interpret as the calves simply aren’t ready for feed and therefore don’t want to waste feed until the calf is ready.


It’s also important to separate water and feed buckets. Research from Utah State University clearly showed that calf starter consumption was improved if water and feed buckets were not next to each other. This prevents calves from dribbling feed and water back and forth between the two and creating buckets of wet feed and dirty water.

With a little extra care and patience, the time you spend offering handfuls of calf starter to a 2-day-old calf to encourage her to eat will help her make a better replacement two years down the road. What’s good for calves is good for your bottom line. PD

Susan Day Young Animal Technical Manager Land O’Lakes Purina Feed