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Calf Starter- what’s important?

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Calf Starter- what’s important?
By Jessica Yeomans, Calf & Youngstock Specialist 21 days ago

Calf Starter- what’s important?

Calf Starter is something that I get asked about daily, whether its coarse mix vs pellets vs nuts, intakes or what’s “best” for calves. So, here’s a breakdown of the current guidelines and recommendations.


Important qualities in a calf starter

  • Palatability- Palatability is perhaps the most important factor in a calf starter as encouraging early intakes is key to rumen development. Palatability can be affected by a number of factors such as: Flavour agents (molasses), Feed form (blend, nuts, pellets ect), Ingredient composition. Quality- The ration should be highly digestible in energy and protein and contain the necessary amount of other nutrients. Presentation - The ration should be presented in a way that promotes intake- i.e clean shallow bowls, fresh, little and often. Coarse vs Nuts vs Pellets There is still much debate as to which is better for calves. Very young calves will accept a coarse ration more readily due to the high molasses content, but a nut or pellet is a more complete ration. I believe that if you are providing a high plain of milk nutrition, as long as the calves are offered fresh, palatable starter they are better off eating a complete meal rather than sorting. As to the debate to a pellet vs a nut, I prefer a nut, for calves as long as it is high quality and palatable. Research has shown that a nut is better utilised by the calf.

Intakes- How much should they be eating?

Calves should have access to clean water and starter from birth. If you feed a high feed rate, I would expect them not to consume a considerable amount until they are 3-4 weeks old, as long as they are eating some, that’s what is important. At first remember less is more- it is better to offer them a small amount frequently to encourage intake and avoid waste. This should be increased gradually with age. The amount the calf eats should be built up to 2kg/day as the calf is weaned.

What factors affect intake?

Amount of milk fed (fat, protein), water intake and availability, housing, environment and management, starter quality and ingredients, presentation (calves are prey animals so don’t like to put their head deep into a bucket… remember eyes on the side of their head to see predators, so when this is blocked they feel vulnerable and may have a reluctance to do so, so providing calf starter in a shallow dish or trough will encourage intakes).

How important is water? (and not the water from milk)

Free water or water offered as water not as milk is vital to early rumen development and starter intake.

Calves offered clean fresh water will eat 31-60% more starter than those with no water.

Calves will gain 38% more weight from birth to 4 weeks of age when offered water from birth, and calves offered free choice water have fewer scour days than calves with no water.

Quality of ingredients

A good calf starter ration should have following elements:

Maize, wheat and barley - release starch at variable rates which is digested to create volatile fatty acids. These organic acids stimulate the growth of rumen papillae which grow longer in this healthy environment

Nutritionally improved straw (NIS) - slows fermentation, prevents acid peaks and enables the rumen to extract more nutrients. Increased intakes and improved daily liveweight gains

Hipro Soya – highly digestible protein source, essential for growth

Sugar Beet Pulp, Molasses – natural sugars help growth of a healthy bacteria population to digest concentrate efficiently

Wynnguard health package - provides yeast, essential minerals, vitamins and nutraceuticals to boost immunity and help the calf overcome health challenges