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Feeding of Probiotics to Calves
by Lance D. Ruppert, Gene C. McCoy, and Michael F. Hutjens

The feeding of probiotics to calves to improve health and dry matter intake has been reported by dairy farmers, but has little research support. This experiment was designed to provide experimental data on the effects of feeding probiotics to dairy calves from birth until weaning.

Thirty Holstein calves were randomly assigned to two treatments. Sixteen calves with birthdates between March 13 and April 9, 1993 were in the spring period and fourteen calves with birthdates between April 21 and June 12, 1993 were in the summer period. The calves were fed either a diet supplemental with a combination of S. cerevisiae, S. faecium, and L. acidophilus (brand name Fastrack) or a control diet for 6 weeks. One half of the calves in each season group received 5cc. of oral paste containing probiotics at birth and 1/4 teaspoon of liquid dispersible probiotic daily in the milk for 6 weeks. All calves were fed colostrum and moved into hutches at two days of age. Each calf was fed whole milk twice a day at a rate of 10 percent of body weight for the first 5 weeks. All calves were then fed whole milk once a day at 5 percent of body weight during the sixth week. All calves were fed a calf starter (Table 1) ad libitum for 7 weeks. Water was available free choice and calves remained in calf hutches for the duration of the experiment.

Body weight of each calf was measured at birth, at 2 days (when moved to the hutch), and weekly throughout the experiment. Each calf was also measured to determine height at the withers, body length, and heart girth when moved to the hutch and at four, six, and seven weeks of age. Fecal scores were taken daily to evaluate health status. Data were analyzed using the general linear models procedure of SAS. Body weight measured on day two (hutch weights) after birth for each calf was used as a covariate for all analyses.

The results of the experiment are summarized in Table 2. In the spring period all measurements were similar for all calves and no significant differences were measured. In the summer period, calves fed the probiotics were significantly higher in average daily weight gain and average daily feed intake and lower in fecal scores. The lower fecal scores and higher weight gains can be attributed to a higher consumption of calf starter.

In conclusion, under conditions of additional heat stress, calves had improved performance when given probiotics. This conclusion was based on visual observation of stress on the calves and on the average daily temperature and average daily relative humidity readings for the two periods. In the spring period the average daily high temperature was 62.9 F and the average daily maximum relative humidity was 93.1 percent. The summer period had averages of 78.7 F and 95.7 percent relative humidity. These differences in temperature and humidity supported our visual observations of additional stress on the calves in the hotter and more humid summer period.

Table 1. Ingredients and nutrient composition of calf starter.

ITEM % of Dry Matter
Ingredient composition of starter  
Ground Shelled Corn 30.40
Ground Oats 16.30
Soybean Meal 14.75
Wheat Bran 8.10
Dried Molasses 4.00
Alfalfa Meal 24.30
Dicalcium Phosphate 1.45
Sodium Chloride 0.60
Mineral/vitamin mixa 0.10
Nutrient Composition of Starter  
Dry Matter 91.4
Crude Protein 19.4
ADF 13.1
NDF 23.2
Calcium 0.84
Phosphorus 0.73

aContains: Co,.004%; Cu,.5%; I,.025%; Fe,2.0%; Mg,5.0%; Mn,3.0%; K,7.5% Se,.015%; S,10%; Zn,3.0%; Vitamin A, 2200 IU/g; Vitamin D, 660 IU/g; and Vitamin E, 8 IU/g.

Table 2. Average daily intakes, body weight gains, fecal score, and body measurements.

Measurement Spring Period Summer Period
  Control Probiotics Control Probiotics
Hutch Weight, (lb) 93.9 91.9 85.9 90.6
Starter Intake, (lb/day)
Day 2-14 0.09 0.07 0.01 0.02
Day 2-28 0.21 0.23 0.06 0.13
Day 2-42 0.64 0.62 0.33 0.42
Day 2-49 1.03 0.98 0.62 0.78
Gain, (lb/day)
Day 2-14 0.53 0.70 0.46 0.68
Day 2-28 0.88 0.99 0.68 0.88
Day 2-42 1.13 1.17 0.77 0.93
Day 2-49 1.25 1.22 0.91 1.05
Fecal Score
Day 2-14 1.78 1.70 1.85 1.69
Day 2-28 1.90 1.86 1.97 1.90
Day 2-42 1.76 1.72 1.85 1.81
Day 2-49 1.62 1.62 1.74 1.69
Wither Height, (in)
Day 49 34.1 34.3 33.0 33.3
Body Length, (in)
Day 49 29.6 29.9 28.4 28.9
Heart Girth, (in)
Day 49 38.3 38.6 35.4 36.7

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