Starter for pre-weaned calves

Starter helps to tackle the nutritional gap between the growing animal and fixed nutrients coming from milk.

Starter is an important part of a pre-weaned calf’s diet. In most dairy calf raising systems, calves are fed a pre-determined amount of milk that is steady for several weeks, then that amount is reduced during weaning. 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. Starter fills the nutritional gap between the growing animal and fixed nutrients coming from milk.

The goal is that the calf is consuming enough starter to sustain a good average daily gain (ADG) and maintain that during weaning. Early weaned calves (6 weeks or less) will be smaller and consume less starter at weaning - 2.0 - 3.0 lb/hd/day for 3 consecutive days. Calves weaned later or on accelerated milk programs will be larger and should consume 4-5 lb/hd/day for 3 consecutive days before fully weaned.

It can be problematic to get calves on high milk programs to consume 4-5 lb of starter per day because they are getting the majority of nutrients from milk. However, it is very important that the calf can continue on a high growth pattern and not diminish those gains after weaning so that the resources used in high milk feeding are not wasted. Research has shown that nutrient digestibility post-weaning is reduced when calves drink larger amounts of milk and consume little dry feed prior to weaning. It is important that calves consume starter early to prepare the rumen in physical size and metabolic activity to be able to sustain the calf on dry feed post-weaning.


To help encourage starter intake, begin offering dry feed at day 3-5 of life. Only offer a small handful to begin with and replace with fresh every day. As the calf begins to consume starter, continue to replace with fresh daily and only feed the amount she will clean up. Some producers have a shallow dish for new calves to encourage the calf to try the feed without placing her head into a deep bucket. Ensure that feed buckets are clean, free from manure or moldy wet feed.


There is a direct correlation with water and starter intake. If clean water is not available, calves will consume less starter. This is a combination of palatability and that water is the medium that ruminal bacteria live in. The starter grains the calf eats go to her rumen. 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 (picture 1) so that the calf is not able to slop water into her feed, creating a wet, moldy blob that she will not consume.

What Type

Most research indicate that calves find textured feeds (pellets plus grains) most appealing. However, there are several studies that show pelleted feeds are preferable. Generally, calves will consume either form, provided there is good pellet quality. Calves do not like crumbly, dusty feed, making pelleted and textured feeds preferred over a meal type feed. Most commercial calf feeds contain molasses to encourage feed consumption and range from 18-22% protein, all of which can fit into a calf feeding program when balanced with the farm’s milk feeding program. Michigan State University Extension highly recommends feeding a calf starter that contains a coccidiostat. Coccidiosis is very common in young calves and tends to break at periods of high stress, such as weaning, and a feed containing a coccidiostat will prevent outbreaks.

 What about forage?

There are many new research studies on the effects of forage to pre-weaned calves. Some are reporting positive results in ADG and pre and post-weaning dry feed consumption. However, the results are not easily applied to every farm situation, in that it depends on your milk feeding program, the composition of the starter feed, the type of forage, the length of the forage, the presentation of the forage (mixed in the starter or offered separate) and the amount of forage. An additional consideration is bedding type and consumption of bedding. I often see calves consuming straw when fresh bedding is put out, to which I ask myself: if calves are consuming straw or shavings, is it better to offer a clean forage that has more available nutrients? Forage in limited amounts can provide positive effects to calves; forage can promote rumen development and raise rumen pH through the saliva production during chewing. This is beneficial as recent research is showing acidosis to be a bigger issue in pre-weaned calves than we realized. Producers should work with a nutritionist to see if forage would be a benefit in pre-weaned calves in your situation. Offer small amounts (5-10% of total intake) and keep track of starter intake, weaning and post-weaning weights to determine if the addition of forage is a benefit to your operation.

Calf raisers must be very conscientious of promoting starter intake early so that the calf is able to sustain her growth rate through weaning and beyond. Clean, fresh starter that is always available will help promote early consumption.

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