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4 Factors that impact starter intake

Trent L. Lartz for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 December 2020

Is it okay for the grain bucket to be empty? Before I answer that question, let us go over the importance of starter intake for pre-weaned calves.

Pre-weaned dairy calves need starter grain to initiate rumen development. Bacteria in the rumen begin to utilize nutrients from the starter grain and produce volatile fatty acids that assist with rumen development and feed intakes. To maximize starter grain consumption, it is essential to understand how much calves will eat and what factors might impede consumption of starter grain.



1. Calf size, gender and breed. Calf size can be related to breed, calf sex and birthweight. This is all related to the approximate volume or size of the calf to allow it to consume more starter grain. The larger the calf, the more capacity for starter grain intake. Conversely, the opposite is true for smaller calves. The amount of starter intake should be based on the size of the calf and not a generality for all calves being raised. A rule of thumb is to have a 0.25 pound difference in intake of calf starter for a 25 pound difference in calf weight.

2. Water availability. Water is necessary for rumen bacterial growth and for dry feed consumption. Clean water provided daily encourages starter consumption. Calves deprived of water may experience a 31% decrease in starter intake and a 38% reduction in weight gain.

3. Calf housing, weather and management. Calves will require more nutrients in colder weather because of higher body maintenance requirements to keep warm. If the milk replacer feeding protocol is not adjusted to increase the nutrients offered, calves will need to consume more starter grain. This is only the case with calves over 3 weeks old.  Calves younger than 3 weeks  rely solely on offered milk replacer meals. Grain should be offered within the first 2 to 4 days of age. Starter grain is introduced at an early age to allow calves to find it and become accustomed to it. This increased intake also improves health and growth performance.

Housing may also affect starter consumption. Pair housing of calves shows significantly increased starter grain consumption after 5 weeks old. Calves group housed after being individually housed for three days ate more starter grain compared to individually housed calves.3 Calf starter intake averaged 4.85 pounds (give or take 0.49 pounds) per day for early paired calves and 2.78 pounds (give or take 0.73 pounds) per day for individually raised calves.

4. Starter grain texture, formulation and freshness. Calves will consume more textured starter grain than a pelleted form or a “mash.” Feeding a textured starter may increase consumption, but pelleted starters have been associated with higher feed efficiencies. Calves will consume more starter grain, textured or pelleted, if it is fresh, not dusty nor moldy. Molasses provides some energy and reduces the dustiness of grain. However, too much molasses (an increase of 5% to 12% dry matter molasses) added to textured starter grain decreased starter intake and growth. Spillage of milk or water into the grain bucket can result in moldy grain. Moldy feed may not be palatable to young calves because of “clumping” or off-flavor and may contain mycotoxins that can affect calf health. Therefore, reducing water and milk contamination of starter grain and keeping grain fresh is essential to encourage consumption.


It is important to encourage starter grain intake as early and efficiently as possible. This does not mean limiting the amount of milk replacer or milk the calf is fed to encourage them to seek out starter grain to fulfill their nutrient requirements. This should be done by adding a small amount of starter grain to the grain bucket. The leftover grain should be removed at least once daily and replaced with fresh. Do not be concerned if the bucket is empty when it is time to add more grain. The concern should be how long the bucket is empty. I know nutritionists and veterinarians stress to never have an empty bunk with dairy cows, but this is not an issue with dairy calves. The grain bucket can be empty for a couple of hours. The goal should be for there to be a few pieces of grain left in the bottom of the bucket when it is time to add fresh starter grain. To encourage more starter intake early, it is also best to offer starter in a shallow dish. Remember, calves are a prey animal; this means they are very wary to put their heads into a bucket, especially a black or dark bucket, with their eyes going below the edge of the bucket. By offering grain in a shallow dish, calves can be nosey and test the starter grain without losing sight of their surroundings. This will encourage more starter grain intake at an earlier age.

So, to answer the question, it is okay for the grain bucket to be empty for a short period of time.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Trent L. Lartz is the owner and chief consultant at Ridge View Animal Consulting. Email Trent L. Lartz.