With the opportunity to capitalize on the record low native beef herd numbers and the growing demand for high-quality beef, dairy-beef crossbred cattle producers can benefit from taking a second look at their early-life nutrition program.
Many of the factors that determine long-term growth and performance of cattle are determined during the neonatal period. During this pre-weaning stage, calves are going through many important development processes, and this may be the best opportunity for producers to positively impact a calf’s future growth and performance.
The importance of early life
Gut health and immune system development
The first three months of a calf’s life are critical to the maturation of the gut.1 During this time, the physical barrier and structure of the rumen and intestine are developing as well as the immune system. Simultaneously, the microbiome is established and undergoes maturation, which plays a vital role in the long-term health of the animal. Early life intervention may be an effective way to support the gut microbiota in adults.
Neonatal nutrition has been shown to influence muscle growth and protein accumulation. Animals are born with a set amount of muscle cells and can’t produce more of them, so fetal development is the most critical time period to support total muscle cells in animals. Postnatal skeletal muscle growth is dependent on satellite cells that allow the muscle cells to continue to grow larger. During the early neonatal phase, satellite cells are rapidly produced and go through key developmental stages that allow muscle cells to function properly as the animal grows. As the calf matures, the ability to produce these cells is drastically reduced.
Early life is also critical for adipocyte cells that store fat development. It is important to develop the population of adipocytes early as these are the cells that will fill with lipids to become marbling as the animal gets closer to maturity. As with muscle cells, the fetal stage is the best opportunity to impact adipocyte numbers, but the opportunity to have an impact on marbling is still high during the first few months of an animal's life and decreases as animals get older.2
The plane of nutrition matters
To better understand the performance potential of dairy-beef cross calves, researchers at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center compared a high plane of nutrition to a commercial (control) plane of nutrition. The findings from the trials show that early-life nutrition has a significant impact on the development, growth, and performance of a calf during the pre- and post-weaning phases, but also may have long-term benefits, including improved quality grade scores.
Overall growth and performance
When producers are feeding young calves, they are setting the stage for how the calf will perform throughout its life. Nutrition can impact all the individual components of development including gut, immune system, muscle, marbling, and, ultimately, overall growth. By implementing a high plane of nutrition program, producers can set the stage for long-term growth and performance of their calves and improve their bottom line potential.
© 2023 Purina Animal Nutrition LLC. All rights reserved.
1 Moeser, A. J., C. S. Pohl, and M. Rajput. 2017. Weaning stress and gastrointestinal barrier development: Implications for lifelong gut health in pigs. Anim. Nutr. 3:313-321. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aninu.2017.06.003.
2 Du, M., J. Tong, J. Zhao, K. R. Underwood, M. Zhu, S. P. Ford, and P. W. Nathanielsz. 2010. Fetal programming of skeletal muscle development in ruminant animals. J. Anim. Sci. 88:E51-E60. doi: 10.2527/jas.2009-2311.