Butyrate Effects on Rumen Development and Calf Health

Butyrate Effects on Rumen Development and Calf Health

Volatile Fatty Acids (VFA’s) are byproducts of microbial fermentation in the rumen. The three most abundant VFA’s produced in the rumen are acetate, propionate, and butyrate. Acetate is primarily produced by bacteria that ferment forages. Butyrate and propionate are primarily produced by bacteria that ferment starch. Butyrate is a key nutrient essential for the development of rumen papillae, as the cells of the epithelial layer of the rumen wall use butyrate for energy and growth. 

Milk Sources of Butyrate

Colostrum has the highest concentration of butyrate, 2.1% of DM. That first meal of colostrum is not only important for immunity, but also helps to prepare the gut for development. Whole milk follows colostrum closely, containing approximately 1.2% of DM of butyrate. Milk replacers contain the least amount of butyrate and are highly variable in amount depending on source and amount of fat included.  Calves may benefit from added butyrate when being fed milk replacer.


Feeding supplemental butyrate to young calves has shown positive effects on gastrointestinal development and performance. Supplementation within just the first week of life has shown increased papillae length, intestinal development, pancreatic secretions, and nutrient digestibility, resulting in greater average daily gains. Effects of butyrate added to milk replacer have minimal impact once starter intake is sufficient to produce butyrate via rumen fermentation.  Therefore, supplementing milk replacer is most beneficial in early weaning programs, especially when calves are fed high levels of milk replacer.

Other Benefits

Butyrate may have more benefits than just enhanced growth, rumen, and intestinal development. Other studies have shown butyrate may be beneficial in influencing rumen, and hind gut microbial populations, and it may be a candidate additive for “microbial programming” early in life. 

In the quest to find more natural ways to enhance the immune system of young calves, supplemental butyrate has also been studied fed alongside with other fatty acids to determine the effect upon which they alter immune and inflammatory responses. Trial results suggest that not only can feeding these fatty acids improve growth, but also decrease incidence of scours, and alter immune reactions following vaccination, which may have a positive affect on the calf’s ability to handle a disease challenge. 


Butyrate definitely plays a huge role in development of the gastrointestinal tract.  Ensure calves achieve proper rumen development by providing adequate starter feed and free choice water early in life to allow for microbial colonization and starch fermentation in the rumen. Keep in mind that butyrate is a natural component of whole milk, and supplementing butyrate for calves on fed high amounts of milk replacer may be beneficial for health and growth of the animal.


Written by: Mariah Gull M.S.

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