Supplementing Feeder Calves

Strategic dietary supplementation could improve calf immunity during the stressful weaning and receiving periods. ( John Maday )

Even in human health, use of dietary supplements requires somewhat of a leap of faith. We know that certain vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, herbs and microbial products have health benefits, but just a few can offer data from controlled, replicable trials.

Likewise in beef and dairy cattle, supplements including yeast-based probiotics and prebiotics, essential fatty acids and others can benefit rumen health, immunity and performance. Producers and veterinarians should, however, look beyond the marketing claims for credible trial data.

Also, with implementation of the VFD rules, removal of antibiotic labels for performance enhancement and other pressures to reduce antibiotic use, producers are looking for ways to provide specific nutrients to support the immune system.

Shelby Roberts, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow with Alltech. says  that in calves, about 13% of death loss occurs during the first 24 hours after birth, while about 28% occur from one to 21 days and 14% after 21 days. Scours account for about 61% of calf mortality, followed by pneumonia at 25%.

The bovine GI tract contains the body’s highest concentration of immune cells, Roberts says, with additional support from beneficial microbes, which help prevent pathogens involved in calf scours from attaching to the gut wall and causing inflammation. When the immune system and beneficial microbes work together, the animal utilizes more energy for growth. Antibiotic use can disrupt that balance, damaging beneficial bacteria and leaving the immune system as the last line of defense.

Texas A&M University Animal Scientist Reinaldo Cooke, PhD, has conducted a number of research projects on feed additives including yeast-based refined functional carbohydrates (RFCs), essential fatty acids (EFAs) and organic trace minerals.

Several companies, including market yeast-based supplements, Cooke says. They can differ in formulation and yeast strains though, and some have more supporting data than others. Well-known suppliers such as AgriLabs, Alltech, Arm & Hammer, Lallemand, Purina and others have invested in controlled trials to demonstrate the efficacy of their supplements.   

Cooke and his colleagues have conducted trials with Celmanax, an Arm & Hammer “refined functional carbohydrate” (RFC) product derived from the cell walls of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. The RFC product contains several bioactive components, including:

  • Mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS) —short sugar units of mannose.
  • Mannose—a monosaccharide.
  • Beta glucans—sugar units from the yeast cell wall.

Cooke says his research at Oregon State University and Texas A&M has shown that feeding these RFCs from weaning through the receiving period can improve feed efficiency and reduce BRD incidence, largely by enhancing rumen and intestinal health.

In a research trial at Texas Tech University, receiving beef heifers were fed either a control diet or one containing RFCs for 35 days. Treated cattle had higher average daily gains and increased dry matter intake (DMI). Heifers fed RFCs also experienced 61 percent fewer cases of BRD when compared to the control group. In the same study, supplementing Celmanax in calves was associated with reduced Shiga toxin E.coli.

Neil Michael, DVM, a ruminant technical services specialist with Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, says feeding RFCs during the receiving period for stressed feeder cattle, either by inclusion in receiving rations or with a liquid drench, helps improve early intake while also reducing gut inflammatory responses, which can affect other organs such as the liver and lungs. Once past the receiving phase, supplementing RFCs continues to improve gains and reduce the effects of heat stress.

Roberts says MOS, a component extracted from the cell walls of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, binds to receptors on pathogen cells, blocks their colonization, encourages beneficial microbes and enhances production of immunoglobulin antibodies. Alltech offers products that provide these protections, and she outlines several trials to illustrate the effects.

In a University of Kentucky trial involving 20 beef cows, researchers included BIO-MOS in the rations of 10 cows beginning three weeks before calving, while the others received the same diet but without BIO-MOS. They vaccinated all the cows against rotavirus four weeks before calving with a booster in another two weeks. Tests showed significantly higher levels of immunoglobulins G and M in colostrum from treated cows and serum samples from their calves. They also found higher antibody titers for the rotavirus vaccine in colostrum and calves from the treated cows.

Roberts also described a demonstration trial in a commercial cow herd in Montana. Over the previous five years, the 160-head herd had experienced 30% morbidity and 3.5% mortality among calves. The ranch began feeding BIO-MOS at a rate of 10 grams per head per day five days before cows began calving and continued offering it in a mineral supplement through post-calving. In this trial, calf morbidity dropped from 30% to 15% and death loss dropped from 3.5% to 0.

In cow-calf operations, Roberts recommends feeding the product beginning two months prior to calving and continuing until the youngest calf reaches 45 days of age.

MOS also can benefit calves during the stressful weaning and receiving periods, Roberts says. In an Alberta feedlot trial with 900 newly weaned calves, researchers added BIO-MOS to the receiving ration for half of the calves at a rate of 20 grams per head per day. Through the receiving period in that trial:

  • Daily gains for treated calves averaged 2.07 pounds compared with 1.54 pounds for control calves.
  • Mortality rate was .44% in treated calves versus 2.66% in controls.
  • Treatment rate was 18% in treated calves versus 49.4% in controls.

For the weaning and receiving period, Roberts suggests feeding the product in a transition mineral mix beginning two to three weeks prior to weaning and continuing for 14 to 42 days after shipping.

Healthy Fats for Healthy Cattle

Cooke and others have conducted several studies on their benefits of dietary essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, in cattle diets, for improving reproductive efficiency, calf health, and also marbling and carcass quality in feeder cattle.

Michael says moat research on EFAs has focused on dairy cattle, but beef producers are increasingly adopting the concept. Arm & Hammer markets Essentiom, a rumen-inert fat with Omega-3 and Omega-6 EFAs.

Multiple trials, Michael says, have shown that including EFA supplements in cow and heifer diets can increase heifer weights at first breeding, reduce embryonic loss and improve overall reproduction efficiency. In a 2015 commercial trial in Florida, pregnancy rate for 300 treated hiefers was 89% compared with 70% for controls.

Several applications show benefits. “Supplementing cows prior to calving for improves colostrum quantity and quality, body condition and milk production,” Michael says. “Feeding EFAs through the breeding season improves cow body condition at breeding, fertility, tissue health in the uterus, ovarian function and pregnancy recognition. Most recently, Arm & Hammer research has shown feeding at weaning for 45 days and continuing through finishing can improve marbling.”

“We’ve seen the best results when feeding EFA beginning around 30 days prior to weaning, and continuing into the feeding period,” Cooke says. Beginning the supplement upon arrival in the feedyard provides some benefit, but supplementing at least three weeks prior to shipping allows time for the ESA to accumulate in the animal’s tissues, providing support to the immune system and better acclimation to stress associated with weaning and relocation.

Supplements such as EFAs, probiotics, prebiotics and RFCs fit well with preconditioning programs such as a VAC-45 system, Cooke says. They help support vaccines and overall health management, while helping calves endure stressful events and begin gaining weight immediately following arrival.

Currently, Cooke says, most value-added calf-marketing programs do not include specifications for dietary supplements. He notes though, that cow-calf producers who retain ownership through finishing could see significant benefits by using these natural supplements during that transition period. Feedyard buyers, he adds, have begun to recognize the value of supplements for enhancing performance and reducing disease risk. Documenting a supplement program, along with traditional preconditioning protocols such as vaccines, parasite control and 45-day weaning could further enhance calf values.