In recent years, I have seen a lot of pressure on dairy producers to feed more whole milk or milk replacer to their pre-weaned calves. University trials show baby calves fed high levels of milk turn it into superior bodyweight, girth and height at weaning, which make better future-lactating cows. Not to be overshadowed, there is equal pressure to also feed accelerated calves lots of calf starter as soon as they nibble dry feed. Not only should these high-quality calf starters be nutritious, but one of unquestionable palatability and preference.
For good palatability of calf starter it should offer good taste, attractive smell and favourable physical properties such as texture and bit size. It is a similar situation with feed preference, when calves have a choice of feeds.
For example, when given low-quality feeds, hungry calves will choose what might be the best of the unpalatable feeds. I have witnessed poor baby calves, housed in deplorable conditions, prefer dusty homemade chop over mouldy rolled oats. On the other hand, a highly palatable feed is not necessarily nutritious. I remember a group of baby calves eating with some vigour only raw sweet beet pulp mixed with whole high-moisture corn. It obviously tasted good, but it was protein and mineral deficient.
A complete textured feed
I believe the most palatable, preferred and nutritious calf starter is a complete textured feed. As “textured” implies, this calf starter should contain a high level of steam-rolled grains, free from fines and chaff. I like to see this grain portion made up of 3/4 oats and 1/4 corn with no added barley. As a bonus, oats used should be 400-lb. bushel oats and double-clipped like the kind of oats formulated in high-quality horse feed.
I remember reading a timeless Norwegian university “shovel and bucket” exercise in which a pail of oats, a pail of corn and a pail of barley were put on a garage floor and about 10 calves were let loose. They sniffed and rejected the barley, ate some corn and then ate all the oats until nothing was left. This simple demonstration has impressed me for years.
Calf starters should not solely contain my own preference for highly digestible grains like oats, but have well-formed pellets with supplemental protein, calcium, phosphorus, a trace mineral/vitamin pack and medicated with a coccidiostat.
Opinions differ as to the amount of “protein pellets” in a texturized calf starters, but everybody agrees pellets should be made hard as possible eliminating any fines. As a nutritionist, I am often forced to put in at least 50 per cent pellets in order to meet the high protein level in 22 to 25 per cent calf starters.
The protein source used in high-pellet calf starters can sometimes influence feed palatability and preference. Soybean meal and canola meal are good sources of protein for baby calves, but I prefer to formulate soybean and distillers’ grains without canola meal in texturized calf starter pellets.
In my experience pre-weaned calves do not like the taste of canola meal. True to my findings, University of Guelph (2014) demonstrated that milk-fed dairy bull calves fed experimental diets preferred supplemental soybean meal protein pellets over canola meal pellets.
So many flavour options
Once both steam-rolled grain and protein pellets are added to the feed mill mixer, it then becomes a matter of adding molasses to promote dry calf starter intake by baby calves. There is always some question as to how much molasses to add in or be applied on a palatable calf starter — more isn’t always better.
Penn State University (2004) tested either five to 12 per cent molasses in textured calf starter rations on two-day Holstein calves. These animals were weaned at 28 days, but continued on one of the calf starters until 42 days of age. At the end of the trial; calves assigned to the 12 per cent molasses diet ate 22 per cent less calf starter and led to reduced daily gains compared to the calves reared on the five per cent molasses diet. The researchers recommended such large amounts of molasses should not be added to dried calf starters.
Other flavouring agents, besides molasses, have also been added to dried calf starter in order to increase its acceptance by young calves. Research across the board has shown that calves fed natural and artificial flavours in calf starter consume it at an earlier age and in greater quantities. As a result, calves grow faster. Although, my own observation is that calves prefer caramel flavour, I have added vanilla, strawberry, maple/butterscotch, tangerine and even baked-bread flavour to calf starters. Essential oils and extracts from plants and spices are also finding their way into good tasting calf starters.
Often milk-fed calves don’t have much choice over the type and quality of calf starter put in front of them. They do have a choice whether they reject it, pick at it or eat the calf starter with vigour. It’s our job to provide the best tasting and nutritious calf starter to assure the latter response, so they are off to a healthy and good growing start.