Don’t Skimp on the Starter

Holstein calf in hutch ( Taylor Leach )

Want to know the reason why the first grain fed to a calf is called starter? It’s because it is supposed to help get them off to the right start! 

The purpose of this specialized feed is to help transition the calf from a milk-based diet to a dry feeding program. Without it, the calf is likely to fall behind not only in growth and rumen development, but in future milk production as well. 

So, don’t skimp on the starter!

The sooner calves eat enough dry feed to sustain themselves, the better equipped they are to bridge the nutritional gap between the fixed liquid ration and a weaned diet of solely dry feeds.

“As the calf’s body size is expanding in response to milk feeding, it needs more nutrients to maintain itself, which is where starter comes in,” says Faith Cullens, a Michigan State University extension specialist. “Starter fills the nutritional gap between the growing animal and fixed nutrients coming from milk.”

To help promote starter intake, calves should be offered a small handful of the grain at 3-5 days of life. The starter should be replaced daily, using only the amount of feed the calf will clean up. Cullens notes that some producers use a shallow dish to encourage the calf to try the feed without having to place their head in a deep bucket. Buckets should also be kept clean and should be free from manure or moldy feed.

There is also a direct correlation with water and starter intake, according to Cullens. If clean water is not available, calves will consume less starter. This is due to a combination of palatability along with the fact that water is the medium that ruminal bacteria live in. 

“The starter grains the calf eats go to her rumen,” Cullens says. “When milk is consumed, it goes directly to the abomasum, bypassing the rumen via the esophageal grove, while water goes into the rumen. Without water in the rumen, rumen development slows dramatically. Previous research as also shown that starter intake is increased when there is a divider between water and starter so that the calf is not able to slop water into her feed, creating a wet, moldy blob that she will not consume.”

As the calf gets older, it is suggested that calves should be consuming a minimum of 2 lb. per day of a high-quality calf starter before weaning, according to Dave Fischer, an extension dairy educator at the University of Illinois. Calves can be maintained on the starter for 2 to 3 weeks postweaning before they transition to a grower diet accompanied with long forage.

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