Calves are born with no digestive bacteria or fungi in their rumens. Microbial colonization in the rumen is influenced by various external factors that shape the intestinal microbiota early life assembly. These factors include neonatal delivery, maternal and environmental microbiota, diet, and parenting behaviour. The complexity of microbiota in the rumen highly contributes to the rumen weight, wall thickness, integrity, length, and papillae number. On the other hand, the diet composition significantly impacts the diversity of the microbiota found in the rumen. When a calf is separated from its dam early in life, it is subjected to stress, which suppresses immunity and delays the development of the rumen. In addition, the transition from milk to solids may also occur when microbial colonization is incomplete, leading to frequent digestive disorders in young animals. Developing the microbial ecosystem in these young animals is essential to guarantee animal performance and the complete digestion of feed concentrates.
Cattle must consume high-grain diets to maximize meat and milk production. When a calf moves from fibre to grain, an average of four weeks are needed for the bacterial transition to take place efficiently and to avoid metabolic disorders such as ruminal acidosis. Ruminal acidosis can significantly reduce animal performance and productivity. It typically occurs when the rumen pH is out of balance and acid is produced at a rate faster than it can be absorbed or used by the animal resulting in either sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA) or acute acidosis. Despite not being as severe as clinical acidosis, SARA has a more significant economic impact on many farms due to being much more prevalent than clinical acidosis. During SARA, cattle generally eat less, with reduced feed conversion rates, lower body weight gain and reduced milk yield.
The consistency of manure is often regarded as a predictor of rumen digestion by producers and farm consultants. The presence of large amounts of undigested grain may be an indication of poor rumen fermentation. On the other hand, cattle consuming high-grain diets quickly produce gas during digestion. This happens when large populations of bacteria die in a short period of time. By increasing rumen fermentation efficiency, less energy will be wasted as methane, and less protein will be lost as ammonia.
Optimizing rumen fermentation and digestion is the key to maximizing ruminant performance and profitability.