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Short-chain fatty acids: A valuable component of milk replacer

Carrie Ceh and Mariska van de Vosse for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 November 2021

Young ruminants rely heavily on milk in the early stages of life to provide proteins, energy and essential nutrients to grow and stay healthy.

The energy from milk comes from milk sugars (lactose) and fat. Fats are molecules that consist of three fatty acids on a glycerol backbone. When an animal digests fat, it will enzymatically separate the fatty acids from the glycerol backbone. The length and structure of the fatty acid determines largely the digestibility and functionality of these fatty acids. Fatty acid composition is therefore an important point of attention when formulating milk replacers to ensure proper digestion and to provide essential fatty acids. There are three main categories of fatty acids: short chain (SCFA), medium chain (MCFA) and long chain (LCFA).



Maximizing the fatty acid profile

Fat from cows’ milk naturally provides a balanced fatty acid profile, with all three categories of fatty acids represented. LCFA can be provided via lard or palm oil and MCFA via coconut oil to mimic milkfat, but SCFA, mainly butyric acid, is found in butterfat. To get as close to the natural fatty acid profile of milk as possible, some companies have added butyric acid via sodium butyrate, which can potentially have an odour. In order to get the benefits of a SCFA without odour, tributyrin can be incorporated into a milk replacer. Tributyrin is another form of butyric acid consisting of three butyric acid molecules attached to the glycerol backbone.

Increased digestibility

Young calves (less than 3 weeks old) have limited enzymatic capabilities in their small intestine to digest nutrients because the pancreas is still developing. For fat digestion, they rely on pre-gastric lipase in these early stages of life to digest the fat. Pre-gastric lipase has a preference for SCFA and MCFA, which results in high digestibility of butyric acid in young calves. LCFAs are still important nutrients because they also provide polyunsaturated essential fatty acids like omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. LCFAs are also a source of structural fatty acids used for cell membranes, slow-release energy and energy storage in adipose tissue.

Supporting health and gut development

In addition to easy digestion, butyric acid also has additional functionalities. Butyric acid is an instant energy source to the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). The cells can absorb the butyric acid directly from the lumen of the gut and use it as fuel. Butyric acid has also shown anti-microbial activity against Salmonella typhimurium and Clostridium perfringens, for example, which might help in supporting a healthy gut microbiome. When butyric acid is absorbed from the GIT, it has also been shown to elicit anti-inflammatory activities by inhibition of inflammation pathways and signaling supporting gut health and normal immune function. Lastly, butyric acid is a known regulator of gene expression, which can result in stimulation of cell proliferation and therefore support gut development.

Increasing performance

Trials with butyric acid supplementation in milk replacer show promising effects by stimulating small intestine and pancreas development and function. In one study, calves were supplemented with 0.3% butyric acid in the milk replacer, and higher brush border lactase (the enzyme needed to digest lactose) activity was observed as well as higher maltase (the enzyme needed for starch digestion) activity. In addition, enzyme activity related to protein digestion tended to be increased when butyric acid was supplemented by the milk replacer. Furthermore, greater pancreatic juice secretion, chymotrypsin and lipase secretion were measured when milk replacer was supplemented with butyric acid.

These studies show that butyric acid supports digestive capabilities by stimulating pancreatic and brush border enzyme secretion and activity. In another study, it was proven that providing a blend of butyric acid and other functional fatty acids through the milk replacer can improve digestibility. As a result, calves grew 13% more in the pre- and post-weaning periods.


The addition of SCFA in the form of butyric acid in milk replacers will maximize the fatty acid profile and help to support a healthy gut, normal immune function and performance of young calves. end mark

Mariska van de Vosse, MSc, is a product manager of milk replacers for young ruminants with Denkavit.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Carrie Ceh
  • Carrie Ceh

  • Territory Sales Manager
  • Denkavit USA
  • Email Carrie Ceh