Back to Basics - Nutrition

Back to Basics - Nutrition

The neonatal calf must be fed highly digestible feeds containing necessary levels of high-quality protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. When quantifying how much we should be feeding our calves, we divide the requirements into three categories: maintenance, growth, and immunity.


The amount of energy and protein needed to support normal bodily functions, including maintaining body temperature, are quantified as maintenance requirements. Environmental conditions affect maintenance requirements. Humidity, high winds, and extremely cold or hot weather increase energy needs. The protein and energy a calf consumes is first used for maintenance.


Protein and energy fed to the calf in addition to what they need for maintenance are partitioned for growth. It is important to feed highly digestible sources of protein and fat to young calves as these young animals only have a few digestive enzymes in their early life. 

Feed milk or milk replacer containing all milk proteins to newborn calves. Around 4-6 weeks the calf will be able to utilize vegetable proteins. Encouraging early grain intake will establish the rumen environment, and prepare the calf for concentrate proteins, and non-protein nitrogen (urea).

Energy supports body function and is very important to young calves. Young calves lack certain digestive enzymes and cannot digest starch, some sugars, and some fats. While calves can digest saturated fats including; milk fat, coconut oil, palm oil, and lard, they have limited ability to digest unsaturated fats such as corn and soybean oil.

Early grain intake and the rate of rumen development determines how soon the calf will be able to digest complex starches and carbohydrates. Within two weeks of age, the calf can digest starch. Not long thereafter, it can digest complex carbohydrates.


A healthy immune system needs energy to function. Just as we feed the calf for maintenance and growth, we need to feed them for immunity. 

Colostrum is very important to the development of the calf’s immune system.  Not only does it provide energy and immunoglobulins, but colostrum sets the stage for healthy gut development, and discourages the establishment of harmful bacteria. Bio actives in colostrum promote growth of intestinal villi, establish microbiota to aid in digestion, and protect the gut lining to prevent leaky gut syndrome. 

Although colostrum helps establish a healthy gut environment, it is important to continue to maintain it. Feed specifically chosen probiotics and prebiotics, throughout the preweaning period to keep the gut population healthy and consistent.

The calf will divert some energy to the immune system to keep it alive. If calves are not being fed enough this will be detrimental to calf growth and the immune system will not be able to function as it should. Evaluate health events and body condition to assess whether or not calves are being fed enough to grow and fuel a healthy immune system.


Written by Jarred Kopkey and Mariah Gull M.S.

For more detailed information on Calf Nutrition view our previous blog posts.

Milk Feeding

Day 30- Weaning 

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