Posted by Milk Specialties Technical Experts on Sep 3, 2020 12:45:43 PM

Before we answer if it is okay for the grain bucket to be empty, let us go over the importance of starter intake for pre-weaned calves. Pre-weaned dairy calves need starter grain to initiate rumen development. Bacteria in the rumen begin to utilize nutrients from the starter grain and produce volatile fatty acids that assist with rumen development and feed intakes. To maximize starter grain consumption, it is essential to understand how much calves will eat and what factors might impede consumption of starter grain.


Calf size can be related to breed, calf sex, and birth weight. This is all related to the approximate volume of the calf to allow it to consume more starter grain.


Water is necessary for rumen bacterial growth and is also necessary for dry feed consumption. Clean water provided daily encourages starter consumption. Calves deprived of water may experience a 31% decrease in starter intake and 38% reduction in weight gain.1


Calves will require more nutrients in colder weather because of higher body maintenance requirements to keep warm. If the milk replacer feeding protocol is not adjusted to increase the nutrients offered, calves will need to consume more starter grain. This is only the case with calves older than 3 weeks of age. Calves younger than 3 weeks of age rely solely on the milk replacer meals that are offered.

Housing may affect starter consumption. Pair housing of calves show significant increased starter grain consumption after 5 weeks of age.2 Calves group housed after being individually housed for 3 days ate more starter grain compared to individually housed calves.3


Calves will consume more textured starter grain than a pelleted form or as a “mash”.4 Feeding a textured starter may increase consumption, but pelleted starters have been associated with higher feed efficiencies.5 Calves will consume more starter grain, textured or pelleted, if it is fresh, not dusty nor moldy. Molasses provides some energy and reduces the dustiness of grain. However, too much molasses (an increase of 5% to 12% dry matter molasses) added to textured starter grain decreased starter intake and growth.6 Spillage of milk or water into the grain bucket can result in moldy grain. Moldy feed may not be palatable to the young calf because of “clumping” or off-flavor and may contain mycotoxins that can affect calf health.7 Therefore, reducing water and milk contamination of starter grain and keeping grain fresh is essential to encourage consumption.

It is important to encourage starter grain intake as early and efficiently as possible. This does not mean to limit the amount of milk replacer the calf is fed to encourage them to seek out starter grain to fulfill their nutrient requirements. This should be done by adding a small amount of starter grain to the grain bucket. The leftover grain should be removed at least once daily and replaced with fresh. Do not be concerned if the bucket is empty when it is time to add more grain. The concern should be how long was the buck empty. I know that nutritionists and veterinarians stress to never have an empty bunk with dairy cows, but this is not an issue with dairy calves. The grain bucket can be empty for a couple of hours. The goal should be for there to be a few pieces of grain left in the bottom of the bucket when it is time to add fresh starter grain. The other item to do to encourage more starter intake early is to offer starter in a shallow dish. If we remember that calves are a prey animal, this means that they are very wary to put their head into a bucket, especially a black or dark bucket, with their eyes going below the edge of the bucket. By offering grain in a shallow dish, calves can be nosy and test the starter grain without losing sight of their surroundings. This will encourage more starter grain intake at an earlier age.

Grain Bucket Image

The answer is YES; It is okay for the grain bucket to be empty for a short period of time.



Descargar el libro blanco:  ¿ESTÁ BIEN QUE LA CUBETA DE GRANO ESTÉ VACÍA? →

Need nutritional or formulation support?  Contact the calf technical team.



1. Kertz, A. F., L. F. Reutzel, and J. H. Mahoney. 1984. Ad libitum water intake by neonatal
calves and its relationship to calf starter intake, weight gain, feces score, and season. Journal of Dairy Science. 67:2964-2969.
2. Costa, J. H., R. K. Meagher, M. A. von Keyserlingk, and D. M. Weary. 2015. Early pair
housing increases solid feed intake and weight gains in dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science.
3. Tapki, I. 2007. Effects of individual or combined housing system on behavioural and
growth responses of dairy calves. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica, Section A. 57:55-60.
4. Franklin, S. T., D. M. Amaral-Phillips, J.A. Jackson, and A. A. Campbell. 2003. Health
and performance of Holstein calves that suckled or were hand-fed colostrum and were fed one of three physical forms of starter. Journal of Dairy Science. 86: 2145–2153.
5. Bach A., A. Giménez, J. L. Juaristi, and J. Ahedo. 2007. Effects of physical form of a starter
for dairy replacement calves on feed intake and performance. Journal of Dairy Science. 90:3028-3033.
6. Lesmeister, K. E., and A. J. Heinrichs. 2005. Effects of adding extra molasses to a texturized calf starter on rumen development, growth characteristics, and blood parameters in neonatal dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science. 88:411-418.
7. Gallo, A, G. Giuberti, J. C. Frisvad, T. Bertuzzi, and K. F. Nielsen. 2015. Review on mycotoxin issues in ruminants: Occurrence in forages, effects of mycotoxin ingestion on health status and animal performance and practical strategies to counteract their negative effects. Toxins. 7:3057-3111.