Nutreco looks to ‘metabolic maps’ to learn more about impact of perinatal calf diets

Nutreco looking at gene expression to understand dairy nutrition more fully

Metabolic studies will feature large in Nutreco’s new dairy calf nutrition research program, LifeStart, as a way of exploring what impact a higher plane of nutrition at the perinatal stage has on an animal’s lifetime performance.

The Dutch feed group held a two-day dairy calf symposium this week as part of the global launch of that new young animal nutrition initiative - a platform, which it says, constitutes research and expertise on dairy calf health and diet with practical farm management inputs.  

Leonel Leal, a ruminant researcher at Nutreco, told delegates at the Eindhoven event his team is conducting bio-molecular research, under the LifeStart program, to understand why there is better productivity in the older cow if, as calves, they are given an optimal nutrient supply in the first two months.

“There are, of course, a number of hypothesis as to why this is the case, but there are no strong data sets supporting the theories,” Leal told feednavigator.

The team’s ‘ground-breaking’ feeding trials at Nutreco’s own research farm will allow both beef and dairy cows to be monitored throughout their entire life cycle, he said.

“One study will consist of 104 beef cattle, the other 70 dairy cows. Both groups will be split 50/50 with one group on a restricted diet and the other fed at a higher plane of nutrition – eight liters of calf milk replacer daily - over eight weeks,” said Leal.

Metabolic maps

The ruminant nutrition specialist said such a setting will enable the team to take blood samples from the animals at regular intervals. “In this way, we hope to generate metabolic maps that reveal gene expression profiles and show which pathways are being expressed as a result of the calf’s exposure to a greater feed supply early on,” he said.

Leal’s team is currently analyzing tissue from the harvested organs of 12 calves that had been fed either a restricted diet or one based on a higher plane of nutrition at Cornell University. “The publication of results around this particular study is a top priority for us, and we expect to have gene expression data ready for release in a couple of months,” he added.

The insights gleaned from all the bio-molecular work will feed into the team’s future research exploring how to control and enhance dairy and beef calf nutrition, he said.

Duration of weaning

Nutreco’s Harma Berends, also based at the Dutch feed group’s ruminant research center, gave the symposium attendees an overview of the latest scientific insights into calf nutrition. 

There are several critical control points in a feeding program for calves, including colostrum management, consistency of feed quality and calorie intake, the feeding schedule and the convenience of the feeding system.

Berends says duration of weaning is vital: “When calves are weaned abruptly off large amounts of milk, weight gain is typically reduced as a result of low intake of starter. Gradual weaning, over a period of one to two weeks, lowers stress levels for the young animal enabling the calves to consume more starter and record better post-weaning weight gains.”

Providing fibrous feeds pre and post-weaning also increases starter intake, and chopped rather than ground roughage is advised to improve growth and increase rumen pH, she said.

And a higher plane of perinatal nutrition, added Berends, may decrease insulin sensitivity in dairy calves, but not to an extent calves cannot maintain their glucose metabolism. Increasing feeding frequency may be a strategy to favor insulin sensitivity, she said.

Whole milk v calf milk replacers

One of the fundamental choices a producer must make is the use of whole milk or CMR in the feeding of pre-weaned calves. And Nutreco scientists say there are a lot of misconceptions about both inputs in the dairy sector.

Whether whole milk or CMR best corresponds to the accelerated growth program implemented on a farm is less a matter of the intrinsic qualities of either input, they note.  

“Both, in a sense, can be fairly easily adjusted to meet the calves’ nutritional requirements. The larger question is to what extent a dairy producer is prepared to ensure an hygienic infrastructure that can support the chosen liquid feed solution.  

In either case, whole milk or CMR, the management will determine performance as much as the nature of the feed itself,” reports Nutreco ruminant experts in a white published under LifeStart.  

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