Calf Feed Forms

Calf Feed Forms

Providing the best nutrition for your calves is more than just formulating a starter feed! This week we are fortunate to get to learn a little more about what goes into effective calf feeding from Michelle Vannewkirk!

Michelle grew up in Kansas and has always enjoyed animal agriculture. Her interest in dairy was sparked when she began working on the Kansas State University Dairy during her undergrad. Upon graduation Michelle went to work on a feedlot and then went back to complete a master’s degree in Ruminant Nutrition also at Kansas State. During that time, she worked as the Herdsman for the University’s Research dairy. This proved to be valuable to her as she paired her textbook learning with what actually happens on the dairy.

In 2011 she moved to Idaho and started working for Cargill as a Dairy Nutrition Consultant. She has now been with the company for 11 years and splits her time between lactating animals and young stock. Her biggest passion is being able to play a role in improving animal health and performance on various farms.


Feed Forms


On Farm Meal: Not as common and usually the cheapest option. This feed is usually made on the farm and could contain, canola or soybean meal for a protein source, mixed with some form of corn or other cereal grains. It may or may not contain a mineral package. This the bare bones baseline type of starter that I see out in the field. Typically, calves do not have as good of intakes or performance on this type of feed.



Blended Feed: A purchased pellet containing protein, vitamins, minerals, ionophores, etc. is brought in and mixed on farm with a starch source such as flaked, rolled, or whole corn, and molasses



Complete Pellet: All the protein, energy, vitamins, additives, etc. combined in a pellet, bought, and delivered to the dairy.



Texturized Feed: Protein pellet mixed with flaked corn and molasses. Bought and delivered to the dairy.

Michelle notes that mixing your own calf grain works well but takes more management. The mixing wagon will impact the fines and consistency of the finished feed. A large farm that can make fresh calf grain everyday has a better chance of making a consistent product than a smaller operation that might only mix one time per week.

She says, “On farm mixes make sense when we have good equipment, good management, and we can feed through product in a time that makes sense for what we can make in a load in the feed wagon. We can have issues if we are overmixing, inconsistent with ingredient inclusion rates, or if finished feed is sitting on the farm for a long period of time.”


Do the nutrients provided need to be different from one form of feed to the other?

As pelleted calf grains became more common to see in the industry, there was research looking at the form of calf grains. In order to identify the impact of just form, the nutrients were kept the same. Essentially, they just took a texturized calf grain, ground it up, and then pelleted it.

They didn’t see very good performance on the pelleted calf grain in those studies because they had taken a high starch grain, ground it up, which increased the surface area of the starch, and then it was fed to a calf. The naïve rumen then experiences this as a drop in rumen pH and calves go off feed.

We can be very successful with each feed form. With a texturized feed we are thinking more along the lines of high starch. A pelleted feed will have more moderate starch levels and drive more energy from digestible fiber. The benefit of that is at weaning when we take milk away and dry feed intakes go up, we tend to see better rumen development as we get more butyrate production from those fiber sources. We also see more moderate changes in rumen pH, resulting in more consistent intakes from day to day.


In your opinion what should the ideal starter feed contain?

I look a lot more at nutrients than ingredients. Regardless of feed form it is important to make sure appropriate protein levels are met. I have really started to emphasis amino acids rather than just crude protein. This ensures that we are efficient with the protein that we are feeding and allows us to reduce some of the ammonia levels in the calf hutches. Appropriate vitamin and mineral levels are huge and in a perfect world using chelated mineral sources is ideal as it will improve absorption.

One thing that I often see missing from starter formulas are B vitamins.  Mature cows with a functioning rumen don’t need to be supplemented with B Vitamins because they will receive them as a byproduct from rumen microbes. A young calf does need supplemental B Vitamins because they are not yet a functioning ruminant.

I also like to include some form of coccidiosis control such as Rumensin or Bovatec . And in the summer, you could also include a feed through larvicide.


What services can nutritionists and feed consultants provide in addition to starter grain?

The support you get from the people you buy your calf grain from makes a huge difference. I have seen where you can have a great feed and a system that fails. I have also seen farms with a marginal feed and a system that succeeds. A lot of it is being able to identify what the bottle necks are in your operation and having the support to find how to overcome them.

One of Michelle’s greatest strengths is helping producers identify those bottlenecks that are preventing them from excelling in their calf programs.  If you would like to ask Michelle a question or reach out to her about her calf feed, you can email her at


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

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