The starter/arrival time for calves is likely to be the most stressful time of a calf’s life because in just a few days their environment, social network, and feed and water are completely disrupted. These stressful conditions require special consideration when designing a starter program to ensure the calf is well prepared for its next phase of development.
In most cases the calves will have initial intakes well below where they will be once they are adjusted to their new environment and diet. Intake is a critical metric for starter calves. Enough feed should be offered to ensure all calves have a chance to eat an unsorted ration, but not so much that the feed becomes stale or moldy in the bunk. A good benchmark is 1-1.5% of the calf’s body weight on a dry matter (DM) basis. It is also desirable to keep calves just a little bit hungry so they are actively going to the bunk; this helps reduce incidence of acidosis and bloating, as well as being an effective tool to monitor health of the calves. For this reason, it is important that any starter program has a nutrient-dense formula designed to meet the calves needs, even when only consuming a small amount. For most starter calves the goal is to be above 16% crude protein (CP) on a DM basis in the ration. Early in the arrival period the energy content of the diet is of lesser concern. As a rule, high-starch ingredients like corn should be minimized until calves are coming to feed readily and the rumen has had a chance to stabilize. Once this has happened, energy levels (grain content) can be increased gradually until the calves are ready to graduate from the starter program.
In the case of calves destined for a grazing program, it may not be necessary to add any corn to the diet so that the rumen microbe population is aligned for maximum fiber digestion and not interrupted by starch in the feed. All starter rations should be fortified and balanced for macro and trace minerals, as well as fortified for vitamins A, D, and E. Micronutrients of special importance for starter calves are the copper and zinc portions of the ration. Highly absorbable sources of these nutrients are desirable for these calves to help get the digestive and immune systems replenished and functioning at a high level quickly. Vitamin E is also of special concern. As a powerful antioxidant, vitamin E helps to eliminate waste and toxins at a cellular level and contributes to a high-functioning system.
To supply these critical nutrients, ingredients or feeds that are high in natural sources of proteins (distiller’s grains, corn gluten feed, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa, etc.) will maximize the microbial activity of the rumen. It is also desirable to have high-quality forages that will be highly palatable to calves. Hay that is free of weeds, stems, molds, and dust is ideal. Working with a reputable nutritionist will ensure the nutritional needs of these calves are being met. Many producers have turned to providing free-choice nutrient dense supplements for receiving cattle such as cooked tubs. These tubs are ideal for allowing highly stressed or timid calves a chance to receive high-quality nutrition until they are ready to compete at the bunk, and they can help train calves to go to the bunk.
A critical consideration of the starter ration is whether or not to medicate the feed, and if it is medicated, what medication will work best. The selection and administration of a feed through antibiotics should be done in consultation with a nutritionist and veterinarian. A medication used incorrectly is money wasted and could lead to increased mortality and morbidity.
Natural alternatives to antibiotics (non-nutritive health and immune booster-type products) have rapidly gained in popularity and effectiveness in recent years.an Many products fall under this heading, with phytonutrients, prebiotics, and probiotics to name a few. Effects of this type of feed additive include pathogen binders, heat stress abatement additives, and anti-parasitic (internal and external) additives. These products can be advantageous because they don’t come with prohibitions on drug combinations and don’t require a VFD. In many cases these products can work great in lower stressed calves, or in settings where proactive nutrition is enough to prevent morbidity. These products are also popular in settings where calves will be marketed through programs that restrict or prohibit the use of antibiotics.
A highly effective starter program will help calves cope with the most stressful time in their lives and prepare them to excel at the next phase of production.