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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > Will the form or flavor of calf starter improve intake?

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Will the form or flavor of calf starter improve intake?

Neil Broadwater, Extension Educator-Dairy and Hugh Chester-Jones, Animal Scientist, SROC

March 5, 2010

Many foods purchased at the store and taken home to eat have had flavoring added. There are flavors added to potato chips, crackers, butter, ice cream, cookies, candies, soft drinks and breakfast cereals. Even pet food is flavored. Flavors are usually added to make food more appealing to the taste buds and/or sense of smell, and just to make it more enjoyable to eat. Will flavored ingredients added to a calf starter enhance intake and improve performance? There are several products on the market today that are designed to do just that. Certainly, it is important to have early consumption of starter by young calves to support rapid rumen development and enable early weaning.

Research has been conducted over the years by several scientists to determine if adding flavors is beneficial to improving calf performance. In a study (1965) by Atai and Harshbarger, University of Illinois, they concluded that the addition of flavors to calf starters may increase starter consumption and that dextrose or sucrose can be substituted for molasses. An Ohio State study published in 1999 indicated no improved performance with the addition of a maple flavoring product in the calf starter. They stated the use of a flavoring product may only be beneficial if palatability is poor. Lesmeister and Heinrichs at Penn State conducted a study published in 2005 looking at the affect of adding 5% and 12% molasses to the calf starter. Their data indicated that adding a 12% molasses level to a texturized calf starter decreases intake and structural growth, possibly causing decreased weight gain, but slightly increases ruminal development. They concluded that a 12% molasses level is not recommended.

Research at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center (SROC) in Waseca from 2005 to 2007 was conducted to analyze pre- and post-weaning performance, health and economics of Holstein heifer calves being fed calf starters treated with different flavor enhancing intake ingredients. Calves were put on two different trials when they arrived at 2 to 4 days of age. Calf starters were offered free choice throughout both studies. They were housed in individual pens (weaned at day 42) until 56 days of age. Fresh water was available at all times.

In one trial, a texturized or pelleted calf starter with or without flavor enhancing ingredients were used on 114 calves. Treatments were: 1) texturized control (TCS); 2) pelleted control (PCS); 3) pelleted control with chocolate flavor (PCSC); 4) pelleted control with whey flavor (PCSW); and 5) pelleted control with sweet start flavor (PCSS). All calves were fed a medicated 20:20 milk replacer in two equal feedings at 9.9 ounces (as-fed) plus 67.3 fluid ounces of water for 35 days, then once a day from day 36 to 42. All starters were medicated with monensin at 30 grams per ton. Results of the study (see table) showed that flavored pelleted calf starters did not improve calf performance. Calves fed the texturized starter had greater daily gains and more gain per pound of feed than calves fed the pelleted control, or any of the flavored pellets. Feeding a texturized 18% crude protein calf starter is preferred when compared to complete pelleted starter diets.

Texturized or pelleted calf starters with or without different intake enhancing flavor sources.

  Average Calf Performance Over 56 Days


Final Hip Ht, in 35.7 35.3 35.9 35.5 35.0
Final BW, lb 177.5 168.1 170.0 165.3 154.1
Total Gain, lb 87.1 79.4 79.5 77.7 64.5
ADG, lb 1.56 1.42 1.42 1.39 1.15
Milk Replacer, lb 47.3 47.3 47.2 47.1 47.0
Calf Starter, lb 114.9 114.1 109.6 108.2 90.5

In a second trial, molasses levels in texturized calf starters were evaluated using 79 heifer calves. Treatments were: 1) 240 pounds molasses per ton of calf starter (12% rate); 2) 180 pounds per ton (9%); and 3) 120 pounds per ton (6%). Calf starters were similar in nutrient content containing approximately 18% crude protein, 10% ADF, 2.7 Mcals ME/kg, 1.2% Ca, 0.6% P. Results of the study showed that feed efficiency with starters containing 9% and 12% molasses were less than the starter with 6% molasses. Body weight gains for calves fed the 12% molasses starters tended to be slower than with the 6% and 9% molasses. There were no feed intake benefits of increasing molasses levels in the calf starter above a 6% inclusion rate over the 56 days.

In summary, calf growers have available various options of calf starter forms and flavor additives when formulating a diet to raise healthy calves. Research at SROC found that feeding a texturized calf starter program is preferred to complete pelleted starter diets. Properly formulated complete pelleted starter diets can be used but calf performance may be slightly compromised. There is no advantage to adding flavors to pelleted calf starters as calf performance is not improved. SROC trials also found there were no feed intake benefits of increasing molasses levels in the calf starter above a 6% inclusion rate. Remember, it is always important to feed a high quality calf starter, one that has no mold, no dust, and has high levels of nutrients to meet the needs of the growing calf.

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