Coarse is best when it comes to calf starters.

“When we looked through the literature, it was very evident that fine particles reduce consumption of calf starters,” says Mark Hill, ruminant nutrition researcher with Nurture Research Center, Provimi North America.

Hill shared this and several other attributes that calf starters should possess during a presentation at the 2011 Dairy Calf & Heifer Conference. Formulate calf starters with these characteristics in mind:

  • Coarse particles and few fine particles.
  • Maximize the grain content (> 50 percent grain). “Grain is composed of starch,” Hill said. “We want to maximize that (to help develop the rumen).” 
  • Avoid high fiber feeds, such as wheat midds, soyhulls, cottonseed hulls and hay, because they are poorly digested. “They are also low in starch,” Hill said. “Starch is helping develop the rumen. Fiber is not helping develop the rumen, plus it is hard to digest for the young animal.”
  • Keep the molasses content of the starter low (less than 9 percent).
  • Starters should contain 18 percent crude protein, on an as-fed basis.
  • Keep the concentration of fat low (less than 4 percent). “We don’t want to add extra fat to the diet,” Hill said. Some of the basal ingredients in the starter may already have too much fat in them. 
  • Starters should be based on soybean meal and corn. “Other ingredients … have not resulted in better performance than corn and soy,” Hill said.
  • Consider including a coccidostat. “Coccidostats are fairly low-cost and a great insurance policy against disease,” Hill said.
  • Certain fatty acids (linolenic acid, for example) that are naturally low in feedstuffs may be worth considering and are cost-effective.

For additional dietary guidelines for young calves, please see the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association’s Gold Standards I.

What makes a good calf starter? The Dairy Calf & Heifer Association is the only national association dedicated to serving the dairy calf and heifer industry. For more information about DCHA and the Gold Standards, visit or call (877) 434-3377.