Serum protein supplements may support calf survival, performance

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/pichet
© iStock/pichet
Serum protein use in stressed calf diets may boost growth and feed intake while supporting health, says researcher. 

Researchers at the University of Illinois and Texas Tech University teamed up to examine the use of either or both an arrival fluid that included serum proteins or a dietary supplement containing serum proteins and fructooligosaccharides (FOS) on performance, morbidity and mortality in stressed male dairy calves.

The group published their results in the Journal of Dairy Science​.

Diet supplement products like Gammulin (G) are predominantly based on using serum proteins, said corresponding author James Drackley, professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois.  

“The idea of the combination of short-term therapy with an electrolyte and serum protein-based arrival formula followed by continuous dietary supplementation during the critical first 2-3 weeks seemed like a logical hypothesis,”​ he told FeedNavigator. “The factorial treatment enabled us to look at whether just the initial administration or the longer term feeding was effective, and whether the combination of the two products might be even more effective.”

The group found that calves getting a one-time serum protein-containing arrival formula (AF) were longer, ate more dry matter (DM) and crude protein (CP) and had higher concentration of cortisol in the blood than those given a control electrolyte solution. Those getting a diet with supplemental Gammulin (G) had better fecal results and needed less antibiotics.

But blood-based indicators of acute-phase response, total protein and urea nitrogen were not altered by AF or G, they said.  

“I think that supplementation of this product to the diet during times of stress, such as those working with transported calves and during cold stress, could be effective in decreasing health problems and death loss,” ​said Drackley. “I would recommend that the Gammulin product be fed for the first three weeks of life in those cases, to get the calves beyond the most critical period of increased susceptibility to diarrheal disease.”

Why serum protein-based supplements?

Drackley said he had a background in working with products like Gammulin and an interest in efforts to improve them.

“The idea of an ‘improved’ electrolyte formula that might supply additional factors such as the serum proteins was something that I have kicked around with people in the industry for many years as a way to help stressed calves,”​ he said.

The period from birth to weaning can be challenging for calves and morbidity and mortality are higher during this time, said the researchers. Respiratory problems and diarrhea are the main factors in early mortality, and limiting those effects is a focus of the dairy industry.

Adequate nutrition in this period is not enough to support a calf if it has been immunologically challenged or stressed, they said. However, dietary supplements could help ameliorate poor management or conditions.

Past research has suggested that serum proteins improve health and growth while reducing morbidity and mortality, they said. And studies with other species have shown that FOS support growth of beneficial bacteria, reduce pathogenic bacteria and boost mineral absorption.

Study details

In the study, 93 calves were given one of four courses – a portion of calves getting either a supplemented or un-supplemented diet were also given a one-time fluid support of a control electrolyte solution (E) or a serum protein-containing arrival formula (AF) after a 14-hour trip, said the researchers. The supplemented diet used G to add serum proteins and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), minerals and vitamins and was given for 14 days.

Feed eaten or refused and heath – based on fecal and respiratory scores – were noted daily, they said. Calf measurements and bodyweights were taken weekly, and blood samples were collected on days 2, 7, 14, 28.

Weaning occurred on day 42 and the test ran through day 56, they said.    


In the first two weeks, calves getting the supplemented diet had improved intake of milk replacer, DM and CP, said the researchers. Those that received the AF had larger intakes of DM, CP and metabolizable energy from the starter and tended to have improved dry matter intake (DMI) than those getting the electrolyte.   

AF feeding also improved fecal score in the first two weeks, they said. G-supplemented calves reduced respiratory problems and mortality for the same period.

Intake was most affected in the first two weeks, and after the second week G-supplemented calves’ intake fell as G was removed from the diet, said the researchers. In the first week, supplemented calves had better average daily gain and feed efficiency, but feed efficiency was fell from week two to four and then all groups were equal.

At two weeks, calf BW and confirmation were similar, but those getting AF were longer and calves getting the supplement were heavier, they said. At week 8 calves were similar, but those getting AF had wider hips.

The results were not entirely expected, said Drackley. “You might think it logical that the first post-arrival treatment with the serum protein-containing arrival formula plus continued dietary supplementation would be more effective, but we weren’t able to show that definitively,”​ he added.

“What was surprising was the calves that got the Gammulin supplement – either without or with the arrival formula – were less likely to die and had other evidence of improved health,” ​he said. “Although there are other components in both products, this fact to me indicates that the serum proteins were the most-responsible factor in the products.”

It was a surprise to be able to show the difference in health and reduced loss from calf death in a study using more calves, he said. A larger study is needed to verify the data.

A future study also could be used to clarify the role that protein intake did or did not play in the results, he said. “One thing we did not do was to equalize the amount of additional protein supplied by the Gammulin treatment in the control diet,”​ he added.

“We should have added the same amount of protein that the Gammulin calves received to the milk replacer of the control calves (in the form of whey proteins, for example) to exclude just a dietary (protein intake) explanation,” ​said Drackley. “That would have made it clear that it was the additives – likely the serum proteins but also perhaps the oligosaccharides – were the responsible factors.”

Additionally, future work could examine serum protein’s actions at the cellular and molecular levels in the small and large intestines, he said. “From a scientific view I would like to tease apart whether it is just the serum proteins, or perhaps the combination with the inulin-provided fructooligosaccharides, is the responsible factor,”​ he added.

Source: Journal of Dairy Science

Title: Evaluation of serum protein-based arrival formula and serum protein supplement (Gammulin) on growth, morbidity, and mortality of stressed (transport and cold) male dairy calves

DOI: 10.3168/jds.2016-11237

Authors: A. Pineda, M. Ballou, J. Campbell, F. Cardoso, J. Drackley

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