Effect of different alfalfa hay levels on growth performance, rumen fermentation, and structural growth of Holstein dairy calves.J Anim Sci 2016; 94(3):1141-8JA
Introducing forage in dairy calf diets during the preweaning period stimulates development of rumen capacity and function and gut wall integrity. It was hypothesized that calves fed alfalfa hay (AH) at greater levels (up to 25% of DM) would result in an increase in starter diet intake and growth performance. The objective of this study was to determine the effects of increasing levels of supplemental AH on growth performance, rumen fermentation, blood metabolites, and feeding behavior in intact male dairy calves. For this purpose, 45 Holstein male calves (3 d of age and 41 ± 2.5 kg of BW) were randomly assigned to 1 of the following 3 starter diets differing in their forage level: 1) diet without AH (control), 2) diet with 12.5% AH on a DM basis, and 3) diet with 25% AH on a DM basis. Supplementation of AH in the starter diets linearly increased total DMI and ADG during the postweaning (< 0.01) and overall (= 0.02) periods. Alfalfa hay supplementation linearly increased (< 0.01) ruminal pH on d 35 and 70 of the study. The concentrations of total VFA (= 0.85), acetate (= 0.74), propionate (= 0.93), and butyrate (= 0.91) were not affected by treatments. Furthermore, forage supplementation tended (linearly, = 0.08) to increase the acetate to propionate ratio compared with the control calves. Blood β-hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) concentrations in the control calves were less (= 0.03) than in the AH-fed calves on d 70 of the study. Among all the measured variables of skeletal growth, supplementation of AH in the starter diets linearly increased heart girth (= 0.05) and abdominal girth (< 0.01) on d 70 of the study. These results indicate that the feed intake, feeding behavior, rumen fermentation parameters, and blood BHBA concentration may be affected by rations differing in AH level so that providing calves with 25% AH can improve calf performance.