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Probiotics for Calves – How and when to use them

Probiotics for Calves - How and when to use them

Overview on probiotics for calves

Probiotics for calves can help pre-weaning gut development. 

The first seven to eight months of life are a crucial time for rumen development, calf growth and getting them ready to wean off milk. Using pre and probiotics for bottle calves can be a good way to support the growing digestive microbiome while they mature. 

Keep reading to learn the importance of good gut health in growing calves, the difference between calf probiotics and prebiotics, and when to start introducing probiotics to calves. 


Importance of “good” bacteria on cattle health and productivity

Probiotics AKA active microbials are the “good” bacteria added into a cow’s diet. 

When added to a dairy cow nutrition management plan, calf probiotics may help 

  • Improve digestion and rumen development
  • Build the immune system 
  • Nutrient uptake 

In other words, probiotics can help improve the health of calves as they grow in this critical pre-weaning stage. 

A healthy gut microbiome means a healthy, growing calf that becomes a healthy, productive member of the herd. 


Difference between calf probiotics and prebiotics

Like all animals, cows rely on the microbiome of their digestive system to absorb nutrients and grow in the critical first few months of life. Feeding calves is all about getting them ready to wean. 

You may want to promote gut health in your calves by adding prebiotics or probiotics to their diet. 

But what’s the difference? 

Probiotics for calves can help prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the gut, whereas prebiotics provide “food” for the existing good bacteria already present. As well as this, prebiotics aren’t actually absorbed by the animals. 

According to Uyeno et al. (2015), generally healthy calves, prebiotics may not be necessary as their microbiome is relatively stable at this stage of their development. 

There is growing research that probiotics can be used when managing all cow lactation cycles and developmental stages. 


Probiotics for calves: When is the right time to use them?

Probiotics for calves can be added to their milk and calf feed throughout their pre-weaning phase. 

However, they may be especially useful in the first three weeks of their life and in times of stress (e.g. hot or cold changes, moving housing). 

Research has also shown that probiotics can be a useful strategy for decreasing faecal shedding of E.Coli in ruminant animals like dairy calves.  

There are also some instances when you should not feed calves probiotics. For example:

  • When they are undergoing treatment for something
  • When mixed in with colostrum 
  • When probiotics have gone off or “died” from incorrect storage 
  • When mixed with antibiotics in milk/milk replacement 

No matter when you decide to give calves probiotics, correct storage is important. This is especially important once the probiotics are open as the “good” bacteria can die off. 


Best probiotics to feed calves

According to Jennifer Schutz PhD, the best probiotics for calves will support gastrointestinal symptoms such as 

  • Bloating,
  • Abdominal pain,
  • Decreased appetite,
  • Leaky gut,

As well as other issues caused by too much “bad” bacteria in the gut. 

Often these symptoms go unnoticed until it is too late to save the calf. Therefore the best calf probiotics will maintain gut health before it is needed. 

In terms of the best strains of bacteria, you may want to consider a probiotic that contains bacillus subtilis that can kill clostridia. Clostridium occurs when there is a build up of clostridia bacteria and leads to acute death in calves. Using a probiotic may reduce the chance of clostridium disease, especially for calves that overeat, are exposed to the elements or are digesting milk-replacements poorly. 

Regardless of which probiotics you choose, they should be specifically designed for the cow’s rumen-based gut health. You should also make sure you check with a professional if you are unsure which are the best probiotics for your calves. 


Take home message

Calf probiotics can help support gut and immune development in growing cattle. The more you focus on good calf care and maximise their ability to absorb nutrients and protect themselves from infection, the more likely they are to become productive members of the herd. 



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