The key scientific principle for calf growth and udder development

LifeStart metabolic programming

The key scientific principle behind the LifeStart program is known as metabolic programming. This phenomenon has been proven to exist in all kinds of mammals, including human beings and dairy calves. The effect is best described as an improvement of the whole life health and performance of individuals beyond what would previously have been considered their full potential. Metabolic programming is triggered by optimised growth at the start of life. Growth in animals is understood to be dependent on four key factors:

  • Genetics
  • Endocrine function
  • Nutrition
  • Management

From genetics to epigenetics

Genetics has long been thought to be the most powerful of these in determining the maximum growth potential of calves. Recent epigenetic research examined changes in the expression of genes caused by external factors. Gene expression appears to be affected by the quality of nutrition and the absence of disease in the crucial early period of life. LifeStart research in dairy calves aims to achieve a deep understanding of metabolic programming, and how this information can be used to optimise rearing programs for calves, optimising udder development and average lifetime daily production.

Enhanced mammary development

The development of mammary tissue is essential to the future productivity of the cow. A 2004 study by Brown et al found compelling evidence that calf growth in the first eight weeks of life is a key factor in stimulating udder development in calves and heifers. A LifeStart feeding schedule results in optimal development of parenchyma – the epithelial and myoepithelial cells that form the milk-producing glands in the udder.

LifeStart research into metabolic programming

The LifeStart research program has proved the positive effect of an elevated plane of nutrition on gene expression and organ development.


 Restricted (n=6)
0.6 kg/d MR 
 Enhanced (n=6)
1.3 kg/d MR
Pancreas, g 32.90 29.49 0.61
Pancreas, % of BW 0.05 0.04 0.11
Liver, kg 1.35 2.35 < 0.01
Liver, % of BW 2.23 2.84 < 0.01
Mammary gland, g 75.48 337.58 < 0.01
Parenchyma, g 1.10 6.48 < 0.01
Parenchyma, % of BW 0.002 0.008 < 0.01

Articles about Metabolic programming

A LifeStart feeding schedule alters serum metabolomic profiles and hepatic function in calves

Elevated levels of pre-weaning nutrition increase growth and change protein and energy metabolism and hepatic function of calves.

To understand calf performance, study bees!

Epigenetics describes the mechanisms that change genes in bees but also in dairy calves.

From genetics to epigenetics

Environmental factors such as early life nutrition can influence the genome and future productivity of animals, a phenomenon known as "metabolic programming".

Pre-weaning nutrition has a big impact on metabolism later in life

In the Kempenshof trial, the effects of metabolic programming on lifetime performance of dairy calves will be studied for the entire life of the animals.

LifeStart Pillars

Colostrum Management
Weaning Strategies
Calf to heifer

LifeStart Themes

Metabolic Programming
Glucose metabolism
Role of fat in calf nutrition
Lactobalance, hydration, and osmoregulation
Most LifeStart science articles on this site relate to a particular stage of the life of a calf or dairy cow. However, some general themes are not related to a particular stage of life. For a full understanding of LifeStart science, please review the information related to the 4 themes above: