Microbiota in calves

Microbiota in calves
By Travis Scott, Veterinarian, Anexa Vets Raglan and Mark Bosson, Cognosco

All ruminants, including cattle, use a population of micro-organisms, called a microbiota, in their rumen to breakdown plants into components that the animal can digest. Every animal has their own distinct population that can be drastically different from other animals on the same farm. Each animal has some unknown way to maintain their specific microbiota, which means once the population is developed in the first few weeks of life, there is nothing we can do to change it permanently. A key function of the rumen microbiota is helping feed efficiency and providing energy to the animal.

These differences in populations can result in different animals being more susceptible to bloat or acidosis, while recent research has shown the primary effects of a healthy microbiota benefit efficiency at converting food into weight gain, milk production and altering levels of fats and proteins in milk. A lot of research is currently being done to identify which micro-organisms are most beneficial, but there is still a lot we do not know about the micro-organisms in the rumen, and how they interact with each other and the animal.

When a calf is born, it does not have any micro-organisms in its gut, so the population of micro-organisms is developed rapidly over the first few weeks of life. This makes this time critical for supporting a healthy gut environment in the calf, as a poorly developed microbiota can have long term negative impacts on the animal’s health and production. During this time, there are several things that can have a negative impact on gut health, including failure to get good quality colostrum into the calf, milk entering the rumen from over-feeding or poor tubing of milk, scours or the use of oral antibiotics.

What about prebiotics and probiotics do I spend my money on those?

At a time when antibiotic use has come under scrutiny and alternatives are wanted for reducing their use, probiotics and prebiotics are being investigated with more intensity, and companies are pushing these products as being the solution.

The WHO [World Health Organisation] has defined probiotics as “Live micro-organisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. Prebiotics on the other hand are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of one or more microbes in the gut.

Probiotics/prebiotics modulate the balance and activities of the gut microbiota. Therefore, any probiotic/prebiotic that assists with maintenance/enhancement or restoration of the microbiota is potentially beneficial.

Much of the early work with pro- and prebiotics has been completed in overseas countries using formulated mixed rations and findings may not be applicable here, therefore we cannot be confident about how much gain you may get from using them. However, the research in this space is rapidly evolving.

For now to give your calves the best chance of developing a healthy and productive microbiota, having good calf rearing systems in place, with good hygiene and high-quality milk replacer and appropriate introduction of meal are crucial. To put together a plan for rearing good quality calves that will develop into productive members of your herd, talk to your vet about creating a calf rearing plan.

Date Added: Wednesday, 5th August 2020