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When it comes to healing what ails them or preventing disease, some consumers turn to the vast array of health supplements available to them at their local health-food store. You’re probably familiar with some of them, like probiotics in yogurt. Most offer a health benefit.

Interest is growing, too, in non-antibiotic supplements for calves. Like their human counterparts, many of these feed additives or “nutraceuticals” offer a health benefit to the calf, particularly during times of stress.

When used in the right situations, these products can supplement the calf’s naïve immune system. Use this Q & A to learn more about nutraceuticals and how they might fit into your calf-management program.

Q. What is a nutraceutical?

A nutraceutical is best defined as a non-nutritional dietary supplement or additive.

In the human-health world, the terms “nutraceutical” and “functional food” are often used interchangeably, says Scott Carter, North American technical services representative for Alltech. That’s also true for calf nutraceuticals.

Dietary supplements or additives that fit this definition offer benefits  “above and beyond basic nutrition,” Carter adds. However, they are not meant to replace good nutrition.

Instead, most nutraceuticals are marketed as a way to improve calf performance and health.

Q. What nutraceuticals are available?

There are several classes of nutraceuticals for calves. Some of the most popular ones on the market for calves include oligosaccharides and probiotics.

Functional or antimicrobial proteins are another up-and-coming class of nutraceuticals, says Jim Quigley, senior technical service director with Diamond V Mills.

For a more complete description of these nutraceutical categories, please see “Get to know your nutraceuticals” on page 36.

Q. What do we know about the effectiveness of these products?

The body of research exploring the effect of nutraceuticals on calf health and performance continues to grow. Unfortunately, the findings have yielded “mixed results,” says Sam Leadley, a calf-care specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates in New York. “Under one set of conditions, a product seemed to enhance performance but in another environment, no effect could be measured,” Leadley explains.

However, some of the most recent published studies show non-antibiotic additives yield positive results on calf health and performance.

Research on oligosaccharides and probiotics is a good example of this.

A study in the December 2003 Journal of Dairy Science showed that when researchers at Penn State University fed a milk replacer containing mannan oligosaccharides (MOS), it reduced scours in calves and improved calf starter intake. In fact, calves fed MOS ate more starter than those fed a milk replacer containing antibiotics.

The same is true for probiotics. A Dutch study, reported in the June 2005 Journal of Dairy Science, showed that a probiotic containing six Lactobacillus species reduced the incidence of diarrhea and the number of treatments for respiratory diseases. Probiotic treatment also significantly reduced mortality.

However, as other research has shown, nutraceuticals don’t always show a benefit. However, if you apply them under the right circumstances, you’re more likely to get favorable results.

“Proper use of feed additives is essential to their effectiveness,” Quigley stresses. In fact, the response you’ll see often depends on the conditions on your farm, including:

  • The calf’s environment.
  • The level of management on the farm.
  • The amount of stress to which the calf is exposed.

And, in the case of probiotics that contain living organisms, how you handle them during storage, mixing and feeding will play a big role in their effectiveness.

Q. How do I know which one is right for my calves?

Of all the questions Quigley gets about nutraceuticals, the number one inquiry is “Which one is the magic bullet?”

“I haven’t seen that one yet,” responds Quigley, as he adds with a laugh, “but I hope I’m the guy who invents it.”

All joking aside, there are no magic bullets when it comes to nutraceuticals. One product doesn’t fit all situations. In order to find out which one best fits your needs — or if you need one at all — you’ll need to do some homework:

  • Learn how the product works and what it is designed to do.
  • Ask yourself, “Is this a ‘band-aid’ solution, or can I solve the problem with other measures, like better sanitation and disinfection?
  • Will this product save me money? What’s the expected return on investment?

Base your decision on sound science and good quality control, Carter adds. A product with very little research backing could turn out to be “magic dust” and offer no benefit to the calf at all.