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Impact of Corn Grain Processing and Protein Sources on Dairy Calf Health & Growth

Written by: Dr. Morteza H. Ghaffari & Dr. Christian Koch


Dairy calf nutrition is paramount in ensuring the overall health, growth, and future productivity of the calf. As newborn calves lack a functional rumen, its development largely depends on their diet and its fermentation in the rumen. The choice of grain processing and protein source can significantly influence feed intake, digestion, and growth performance. There are ongoing discussions regarding the use of certain processing methods or forms of calf starter to enhance growth performance in dairy calves.



To explore the effects of corn grain processing methods (Coarsely Ground vs. Steam-Flaked) and protein sources (Canola Meal, Canola Meal + Soybean Meal, and Soybean Meal) on various parameters of dairy calf performance, including feed intake, growth, rumen fermentation, and blood metabolites.


Study Setup

- Sample Population: 72 Holstein calves, 3 days old, with an average weight of around 39.1 kg. -Groups: Calves were divided based on: - Corn Grain Form: Coarsely Ground (CG) vs. Steam-Flaked (SF) - Protein Source: Canola Meal (CAN), Canola Meal + Soybean Meal (CASY), and Soybean Meal (SOY).


Detailed Results

- Feed Intake and Growth: The combination of corn processing method and protein source had significant effects on metrics such as starter feed intake, total dry matter intake (DMI), body weight, average daily gain (ADG), and feed efficiency (FE). The treatments of CG-CAN and SF-SOY showed the highest feed intake and DMI post-weaning.

- Average Daily Gain: While corn processing alone didn't impact ADG and FE, the highest ADG was seen with SF-SOY and CG-CAN combinations. - Skeletal Growth: No major changes were noted in skeletal growth parameters. However, calves fed SOY and CASY showed a greater body length and withers height compared to those fed CAN during the preweaning period. - Rumen Fermentation: Rumen fermentation parameters remained largely unaffected by the treatments. However, calves fed CAN displayed a higher molar proportion of acetate than those fed SOY and CASY.

- Blood Metabolites: No significant effects were observed on glucose, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), or βhydroxybutyrate (BHB) concentrations due to corn processing or protein source. Exceptions included a higher blood glucose level in the CAN treatment and increased BUN in preweaned calves fed SOY. Ground corn grain resulted in a higher BHB concentration during both preweaning and postweaning periods compared to steam-flaked corn.


Recommendation for Dairy Farmers Based on the findings, dairy farmers are advised to consider incorporating soybean meal with steam-flaked corn in calf starters to optimize calf growth.



Reference: M. Jafarpour, M. Alikhani, A. Riasi, H. Omidi-Mirzaei, M. Khorvash & M. H. Ghaffari. Effects of corn grain processing and protein source on calf performance, rumen fermentation, and blood metabolites. Sci Rep 13, 10129 (2023).