Microbiome 101: The Gateway to Dairy Calf Health

Calf : Health

Animal : Calf

Tom Earleywine, Ph.D.

Director of Nutritional Services

The gut is the first line of defense for a calf’s immune system, protecting her from calf scours, pneumonia and other health issues. Support the gut microbiome with nutrition to strengthen calf defenses.   

What is the microbiome?There are over 13 trillion microorganisms in a healthy calf gut microbiome.

Microbiome may seem like an intimidating word, but it’s really just the microbes in a particular environment, such as the gut of a calf. The gut microbiome is home to a melting pot of microscopic organisms (aka bugs) such as bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Both good and bad bacteria can be found in the gut and are a natural part of a balanced microbiome. However, when the bad bacteria outnumber the good bacteria, calf health issues can arise. 

What’s so great about the gut?70% of a calf’s immune system occurs at the gut level.

Seventy percent of a calf’s immune system occurs at the gut level. A balanced gut microbiome breaks down nutrients, produces vitamins and supports immune response to help address dairy calf health issues, such as calf scours.

Stressors such as changes in diet, housing, weather or weaning can upset the balance of the calf’s gut environment, making the immune system unable to defend the body like it normally would.

Sometimes a calf needs help getting their gut back in balance. That’s where probiotics come in.

How can you keep the calf’s gut in balance?Colorful building blocks balance on a scale.

Probiotics (aka active microbials) are a key building block to developing and supporting a balanced calf gut microbiome. Probiotics for calves support the good bacteria in the gut and crowd out the bad bacteria to help build a strong immune system and fight off dairy calf health issues.

Feeding a milk replacer with probiotics included in the powder can help keep the gut in balance year-round and protect against stress events. Probiotic supplements added to pasteurized whole milk or milk replacer are another option to give calves an extra boost.

Curious about probiotics for calves? Get the details from our Probiotics for Calves 101 guide with information on what probiotics are, their benefits and how and when to feed them.