Milk digestion of young calves can sometimes be very problematic. This post will explain how this can happen. In order to understand why it can be a problem, the complexity of the digestive system of a ruminant needs to be explained a bit more. In other words, why does a ruminant needs this comprehensive system to digest feed.
Ruminants, like cows have a unique digestive system. An adult animal is capable of digesting different kind of plants with sometimes fibers containing a lot of cellulose. These fibers are digested through a combination of factors in the digestive system of the cow.
The First processes of ruminant digestion are:
- The chewing of the plants.
- Adding enzymes through the saliva.
- Exposure to bacteria and protozoa in the rumen and reticulum, which help in the digestion process.
- Mixing and grinding in the rumen.
- Rumination, the regurgitation of plant boluses from the rumen to the mouth.
- Further mixing and grinding in the rumen and reticulum to chop the plants into smaller parts.
These processes are necessary to prepare the plants to be completely digested by the cow. A good example of how the ruminating process works you can see in this short You Tube film.
A newborn calf doesn’t have this complex system for digestion yet and therefore it isn’t able to digest plants. This ability still has to be developed. In the first couple of weeks of the calf’s life, the digestion is very much like other, non ruminating, animals. The one part of the stomach (of 4 compartments) that is active, is the abomasum. When a calf drinks milk, the esophageal groove is formed in such a way that the milk flows through a kind of gutter. Only the abomasum is capable of digesting milk and that’s one of the reasons calves can get problems with digestion.
Because of the fact that the abomasum is the last part of the 4 components of the stomach, milk has to pass the other compartments without going in to it. If the milk flows into the rumen, it stays there and will start to spoil. This flowing into the rumen occurs when the esophageal groove isn’t working properly.
Some factors that will help the esophageal groove to work properly:
- Make sure that the temperature of the milk is warm enough.
- Feed the calves at the same time throughout the day, regularity is important.
- Give fast drinking calves their portion in two or three parts.
- Even better, give the milk in a bucket with a nipple. The head of the calf is faced upward which makes the neck longer and the flow of the milk more natural. This mimics the natural behavior of a calf drinking from the dam.
More information about the working of the digestive system of calves and other ruminants you can find here.