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Feeding the immune system: 3 ways to support calf health through nutrition

Tom Earleywine for Progressive Dairy Published on 27 May 2020

Establishing a healthy gut microbiome from the beginning of a calf’s life can have a lasting impact on her success. A properly developed gut can help improve lifetime feed efficiency and support overall calf health. You see, the gut is the first line of defense for a calf’s immune system, which can protect her from scours, pneumonia and other health challenges.

However, you must act quickly to provide protection. Once a calf starts ruminating, it is extremely difficult to influence the gut microbiome.

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Start a healthy gut early with these three nutrition steps:

1. Provide high-quality colostrum

Colostrum helps develop a calf’s microbiome, which is immature at birth. Feeding high-quality colostrum helps:

  • Grow the villi of the intestine
  • Establish adequate microbiota to aid digestion
  • Protect the gut lining to help prevent leaky gut syndrome

High-quality colostrum contains biologically active factors which promote good bacteria in the gut and discourage bad bacteria. Additionally, colostral fat supports energy metabolism, a requirement for immunity. Colostral fat contains high levels of a compound that binds to rotavirus, a common scours-causing organism, and prevents viral replication and tissue invasion.

Feeding high-quality colostrum immediately after birth is the best way to jumpstart the immune system. Test maternal colostrum and only use colostrum with a minimum of a 22 Brix reading (24-25 is even better). If feeding a colostrum replacer, use one made from whole, dried bovine colostrum and containing 20% colostral fat.

2. Use probiotics and prebiotics

Most farms do an excellent job with colostrum feeding and management. Yet, there’s no way to avoid calf health challenges completely. So, what can you do beyond colostrum to help support calf health? Use probiotics and prebiotics.

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Carefully chosen specific probiotics support a healthy microbiome by making the gut environment hostile to bad bacteria. And, prebiotics act as food for the beneficial organisms and the probiotics.

Feeding a high dose of certain probiotic and prebiotic supplements on the second day of life helps establish the proper gut microbiome early. A supplement also helps good bacteria out-compete the bad bacteria for food and resources. Once the microbiome population is established, it’s hard to change, so timing is critical to make an impact.

Continue feeding probiotics and prebiotics throughout the pre-weaning stage (either through a supplement or a milk replacer with prebiotics and probiotics directly in the powder) to keep the gut population healthy and consistent.

3. Feed to a calf’s full potential

Supporting gut health isn’t just what you feed calves. It’s also how you feed them. The amount and frequency of milk feeding can help:

  • Establish the proper type of bacteria in the gut
  • Provide energy for immune response
  • Promote gut-lining integrity for nutrient absorption

Most calves are fed twice a day, leaving large blocks of time when milk isn’t flowing through the abomasum and the GI tract. As a result, the abomasum can experience big swings in pH levels, creating changes in the gut microbiome makeup. Three-times-a-day feeding provides more consistent nutrition, maintains gut pH levels and puts less stress on the microbiome.

The amount of nutrition fed also has an impact on calf health. The immune system has a basic need for energy in the form of glucose. Without enough nutrition, calves divert some energy to immune response to ensure the calf can survive if a challenge arises. Therefore, both immunity and calf growth are compromised because the energy required to maintain a high level of immune status can’t be used for growth. And, the high-level immune status is without a backup, so if the challenge is severe, the calf may experience significant health challenges or even die despite the heightened state of immunity.

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A full-potential diet ensures calves receive the nutrients they need. More nutrients puts less stress on their bodies and provides more energy for growth and immune system support. Feed at least 2.5 pounds of milk solids in 8-12 quarts per calf, per day for optimal nutrition.

There’s only a short window of time to influence the development of a calf’s gut microbiome. Still, the benefits can last for the calf’s entire life. Work with your local calf and heifer specialist to see how you can use nutrition to support the immune system. end mark

PHOTO: Without enough nutrition, calves divert some energy to immune response to ensure the calf can survive if a challenge arises. Therefore, both immunity and calf growth are compromised because the energy required to maintain a high level of immune status can’t be used for growth. Photo courtesy of Purina Animal Nutrition.

Tom Earleywine
  • Tom Earleywine

  • Director of Nutritional Services
  • Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Solutions
  • Email Tom Earleywine

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