4 things to control a good calf starter intake


A palatable starter feed prepares the calf to eat solid feed and activates the development of the rumen. Several factors can influence the intake of starter feed. The four things to keep in mind to ensure a good starter intake are described here.

Trouw Nutrition

by Isabela Carvalho on 11.03.2021


Calf starters have an important supporting role in providing nutrients to calves early in life. Most importantly, calf starter will produce the fatty acids which are vital to the development of the calves’ gut. Although starter intake is rarely noticeable before 14 days of age, it is important to have it available for the calves by day three to four of age. This is because the early exposure allows calves to learn eating the new feed by a process of trying the feed that is available (1). In addition, even in small amounts, the early intake of solid feed is critical for rumen development. By the time calves are weaned, they should be eating 700-900g/d of starter consistently (2). Starter feed comes in different presentation forms: pellets of different sizes, texturized or mash, with pelleted starter having the advantage of preventing feed wastage. Independently of the form, starter feed should be palatable, clean, easy to find, free of dust and free of mold. Several factors can influence the intake of starter feed and some of those are described below.


1) Supply of clean and fresh water

Calves should always have access to clean water (link ‘clean water’ to article 2 of the Water Quality series?). Failure to supply clean, fresh water reduces the consumption of starter, delaying the weaning process. Calves should be consuming about one litre of water per day by the end of their first week of life, and close to three litres per day by the end of the fourth week (2). Provision of lukewarm water can increase the water intake.


2) Transportation and age at arrival

The age at which calves are transported from the place of birth (cow-calf operation, dairy farm, or similar) to collection centers and then to calf-rearing operations differs among regions. In Canada, for example, calves are moved from the place of origin at three to seven days of age (3) . In Europe, calves arrive in the rearing facility at 14 to 21 days of age (4). Age at arrival as well as previous exposure to solid feed (quantity and quality), will influence the starter intake. Stress and dehydration due to transport will also affect the calf’s willingness to consume the starter feed. Offering a rehydration solution is therefore highly recommended to support calves’ recovery after long or stressful transport periods.


3) Offer a forage source

Offering a forage source, separately from the starter feed, has a positive impact on the rumen environment and development. However, the provision of a forage source for calves is somehow discouraged due to concerns that it might reduce starter intake. Nevertheless, when good feeding practices are observed and a palatable starter is chosen, offering a forage source, separately from the starter feed, promotes intake and improves performance (5; 6). Therefore, it is recommended to offer free access to a good forage source, like straw or grass hay, to calves as early as two weeks of life. It is also important to chop the hay or straw to lengths of three to four centimeters (7), grinding or finely chopping the forage will reduce its positive effects in the rumen. 


4) Feeding scheme and weaning method

Perhaps the most important factor influencing solid feed, and therefore starter intake, is the volume of milk replacer offered and the weaning strategy. Calves will consume more starter when milk replacer levels are low, as an attempt to compensate for the nutrients not supplied in the liquid feed. It is important to highlight that milk replacer is the most important nutrient source in the first weeks of life and there are alternatives to stimulate starter intake even in enhanced milk replacer feeding regimes. Gradual reduction of milk replacer before weaning (step-down method) triggers a surge in solid feed intake (8), increasing total feed and energy intake before and after weaning.





  1. Castells, L., Bach, A., Aris, A. and Terré, M., 2013. Effects of forage provision to young calves on rumen fermentation and development of the gastrointestinal tract. Journal of Dairy Science, 96, pp.5226-5236.
  2. Devant, M. and Marti, S., 2020. Strategies for Feeding Unweaned Dairy Beef Cattle to Improve Their Health. Animals, 10, p.1908.
  3. Khan, M.A., Weary, D.M. and Von Keyserlingk, M.A.G., 2011a. Hay intake improves performance and rumen development of calves fed higher quantities of milk. Journal of dairy science, 94, pp.3547-3553.
  4. Khan, M.A., Weary, D.M. and Von Keyserlingk, M.A.G., 2011b. Invited review: Effects of milk ration on solid feed intake, weaning, and performance in dairy heifers. Journal of Dairy Science, 94(3), pp.1071-1081.
  5. Maas, J. and Robinson, P.H., 2007. Preparing Holstein steer calves for the feedlot. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice, 23, pp.269-279.
  6. Miller-Cushon, E.K. and DeVries, T.J., 2015. Invited review: Development and expression of dairy calf feeding behaviour. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 95, pp.341-350.
  7. Montoro, C., Miller-Cushon, E.K., DeVries, T.J. and Bach, A., 2013. Effect of physical form of forage on performance, feeding behavior, and digestibility of Holstein calves. Journal of dairy science, 96, pp.1117-1124.
  8. Wilson, D.J., Canning, D., Giacomazzi, T., Keels, K., Lothrop, R., Renaud, D.L., Sillett, N., Taylor, D., Van Huigenbos, H., Wynands, B. and Zuest, D., 2020. Hot topic: Health and welfare challenges in the marketing of male dairy calves—Findings and consensus of an expert consultation. Journal of Dairy Science, 103, pp.11628-11635.