Effects of early rumen development and solid feed composition on growth performance and abomasal health in veal calves.
The study aimed at assessing the prevalence of poor rumen development, presence of rumen plaques, rumen papillae hyperkeratinization, and abomasal lesions in veal calves and to investigate risk factors for their occurrence at the farm level. Within a wide cross-sectional study, a sample of 170 veal farms representative of the European veal meat production systems was considered in the 3 major producing countries (99 in the Netherlands, 47 in France, and 24 in Italy). An average of 59 ± 10 (SD) rumens and abomasa belonging to calves from a single batch per farm were inspected at the abattoir by trained observers to assess the incidence of these gastrointestinal disorders. Potential risk factors for their occurrence related to farm management, housing, and to the feeding plan were obtained by a questionnaire submitted to the stockperson. Prevalence of poor rumen development (almost no papillae present), rumen plaques, and hyperkeratinization were 60.4, 31.4, and 6.1% of rumens, respectively, whereas abomasal lesions in the pyloric area were recorded in 74.1% of abomasa. Independent variables related to the feeding system confirmed to be the main risk factors for the occurrence of gastrointestinal disorders in veal calves. However, additional risk sources for each given problem were identified among housing and management variables. The provision of a low amount of solid feed (≤ 50kg of dry matter/head per cycle) was a relevant risk for rumen underdevelopment. Rumen wall alterations (plaques and hyperkeratinization) and abomasal lesions were instead associated with the administration of large quantities of solids (151-300 kg of dry matter/head per cycle) in calves receiving milk replacer during the entire fattening cycle. Among the types of solid feed, cereal grain acted as a preventive measure for low rumen development, whereas it was a risk factor for the occurrence of rumen plaques, papillae hyperkeratinization, and abomasal lesions. Some housing and management options adopted to improve veal calf welfare (i.e., higher space allowance and use of heating) were associated with lower risk for gastrointestinal disorders.