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Canola Meal and Gut Health in Dairy Calves


Article first published in Dairy Business

As dairy producers are aware, calves are the most fragile animals in the dairy enterprise, presenting the greatest risk for sickness and loss until they are passed the weaning period. A recent survey in the U.S. (Urie et al., 2018) reported a 33.8% overall morbidity rate in calves at this stage of life. The most common issue was digestive illness, which accounted for 48% of the total.  The survey also found that 8.5% of calves experiencing digestive upset died. Digestive illness has a major impact on profitability associated with the cost of treatment, added labor requirements, and when calves die, loss in replacements and the genetic improvement these animals provide.

Digestive upset generally results from an overgrowth of pathogens in the gut. The newborn calf has not yet fully acquired a functional immune system, and any stresses, such as weaning, comingling, weather changes, etc. can further suppress this limited immune system. This leads to the question: can there be other ways to avoid digestive upset in calves to compensate for the limitations of the immune system?

Canola meal is less likely to be included in a calf starter feed as a major source of protein than soybean meal. However, there are some indications that canola meal might be helpful in altering the intestinal microflora and stabilizing the gut, making it more resistant to pathogens.

There is significant support for using canola meal to improve gut health in simple stomached animals. Research with lactating sows showed that gut bacteria profile was more favorable by yielding more lactic acid producing bacteria with a canola meal than soybean meal diet (Velayudhan et al., 2018). Since then, research conducted at North Dakota State University showed that canola meal was beneficial for weaning piglets (Hong et al., 2020). When included in the starter feed at 20% of the diet, gut microbial composition was improved, and there was a reduced inflammatory response.  In a follow-up experiment, the researchers determined that piglets receiving starter feed with canola meal were better able to fight an E. coli infection than those receiving a soybean meal diet (Hong et al., 2021). Furthermore, research conducted at the University of Georgia with poultry demonstrated that canola meal was superior to soybean meal for fighting coccidiosis (Yadav et al., 2022).

The researchers concluded that nutrients in canola meal provide prebiotics to the intestinal microbes. Prebiotics are indigestible nutrients, most likely components of the fiber fraction, that selectively stimulates the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut. Additionally, the gut digestive byproducts, such as butyric and lactic acid, produced by these organisms stimulate the development of the lining of the intestinal tract.  This promising approach does not rely on the animal’s immune system to fight intestinal pathogens, but rather supports and takes advantage of the health-promoting microbes already present.

Experiments with calves generally lack the animal numbers that are available with poultry and swine, making it a bit more difficult to evaluate differences. However, it would still appear that there are advantages to feeding canola meal to calves. In one experiment comparing canola meal to linseed meal at 25% of the diet, researchers found that the incidences of diarrhea were 25% with the canola diet and 45% with the linseed meal diet (Malendez et al., 2020). In another trial, canola meal relaced soybean meal as the protein source for calves. Intestinal development was more rapid with the canola meal diet (Burkakowska et al., 2021).

Research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan under the direction of Dr. Gregory Penner has shown that canola meal is an acceptable protein ingredient for calf starter feed and works especially well if it is used to replace part of the soybean meal, or the starter feed contains a sweetener. For more details, see “Can I Feed Canola Meal to Dairy Replacements?”

This article was funded in part by the Government of Canada under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriMarketing Program.


Burakowska, K., Penner, G.B., Flaga, J., Kowalski, Z.M. and Górka, P., 2021. Canola meal or soybean meal as protein source and the effect of microencapsulated sodium butyrate supplementation in calf starter mixture. II. Development of the gastrointestinal tract. Journal of dairy science104(6), pp.6663-6676.

Hong, J., Ariyibi, S., Antony, L., Scaria, J., Dilberger-Lawson, S., Francis, D. and Woyengo, T.A., 2021. Growth performance and gut health of Escherichia coli–challenged weaned pigs fed canola meal-containing diet. Journal of Animal Science99(8), p.skab196.

Hong, J., Ndou, S.P., Adams, S., Scaria, J. and Woyengo, T.A., 2020. Canola meal in nursery pig diets: growth performance and gut health. Journal of Animal Science98(11), p.skaa338.

Melendez, P., Ramirez, R., Marin, M.P., Duchens, M. and Pinedo, P., 2020. Comparison between linseed expeller and canola expeller on concentrate intake, and circulating inflammatory mediators in Holstein calves. Animal Nutrition6(1), pp.47-53.

Urie, N.J., Lombard, J.E., Shivley, C.B., Kopral, C.A., Adams, A.E., Earleywine, T.J., Olson, J.D. and Garry, F.B., 2018. Preweaned heifer management on US dairy operations: Part V. Factors associated with morbidity and mortality in preweaned dairy heifer calves. Journal of dairy science101(10), pp.9229-9244

Velayudhan, D.E., Hossain, M.M., Regassa, A. and Nyachoti, C.M., 2018. Effect of canola meal inclusion as a major protein source in gestation and lactation sow diets with or without enzymes on reproductive performance, milk composition, fecal bacterial profile and nutrient digestibility. Animal Feed Science and Technology241, pp.141-150

*Yadav, S., Teng, P.Y., Singh, A.K., Choi, J. and Kim, W.K., 2022. Influence of Brassica spp. rapeseed and canola meal, and supplementation of bioactive compound (AITC) on growth performance, intestinal-permeability, oocyst shedding, lesion score, histomorphology, and gene expression of broilers challenged with E. maxima. Poultry Science101(2), p.101583.

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