Increasingly calf rearers are becoming aware of the benefits of using prebiotic and probiotic supplements that have come onto the market in the recent past.  But while they both claim to promote gut and overall health and to reduce incidences of scouring, what are the differences between prebiotics and probiotics which lay claim to these health benefits?

The easiest way to explain the benefits of prebiotics is to explain what they are and how they work.  Prebiotics are carbohydrates that occur naturally.  Common sources of prebiotic carbohydrates are cereal grains, beet sugar, onions, bananas, and even artichokes, and shrimp shells.

While some prebiotics is chemically produced, not all prebiotics are equal, each type having different effects on intestinal bacteria and producing different outcomes. 

What a prebiotic does is to provide a food source for bacteria in the gut to ferment.  The bacteria that do this are known as probiotic bacteria, which is the fundamental difference between prebiotics and probiotics. 

A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon.  Conversely, probiotics are organisms and substances which contribute to intestinal microbial balance. 

Prebiotics selectively provide food to encourage the growth of the probiotic bacteria, which are good bacteria of the gut. 

So you may ask ‘why not just feed a probiotic?’  The answer is simple.  When you feed a prebiotic, you are selectively feeding the good bacteria present in the calf’s gut.  In the lower intestine, the prebiotics increases the ability of the gut to produce natural antibiotics.  By increasing the level of good bacteria in the gut you are reducing the negative effects of bad bacteria present such as E.coli and salmonella which can take hold when the calf is under stress. 

Prebiotics are less common than probiotics but are more effective as they specifically target and feed the good bacteria of the gut.  Probiotics are also more expensive on a dose per calf basis and not as stable. 

A product currently on the market and designed to promote the growth of good bacteria is called Calfcare.  Added to either CMR or vat milk, a 2004 study by Massey University showed proven results of how effective the use of prebiotics in calf rearing can be by increasing feed efficiency, improving condition and appearance, increasing weight gains as well as improving immune function and general health.