Since antibiotic use in animal production has become a public health concern, great efforts are being dedicated to find effective and viable alternatives. While essential oils (EO) have become attractive candidates for use in the livestock industry, their mode of action and microbial targets in food animals remain largely uncharacterized. To gain further insight, we investigated the rumen environment of neonatal calves fed calf starter pellets and milk replacer supplemented with a commercial blend of EO. Propionate concentrations were not only found to be higher in EO-fed calves compared to controls (P
< 0.05), but ruminal bacterial communities also differed greatly. For instance, the abundance of Firmicutes was significantly lower in samples from EO-fed calves than in controls, which appeared to be mostly due to lower Lachnospiraceae levels (P
< 0.05). In contrast, Bacteriodetes were more abundant in EO-fed calves compared to controls, which was primarily the result of higher Prevotellaceae (P
< 0.05). Notably, two bacterial operational taxonomic units (OTUs) were significantly more abundant in EO-fed calves; SD_Bt-00966 was found to be a close relative of Prevotella ruminicola
(97%), while SD_Bt-00978 likely corresponded to an uncharacterized species of Gammaproteobacteria. In addition, Pearson correlation and canonical correspondence analyses revealed potential associations between other ruminal bacterial OTUs and either short chain fatty acids (SCFA) parameters or metrics for calf growth. Together, these results support that EO supplementation in growing dairy calves can modulate rumen function through SCFA production and growth of specific rumen bacterial groups.
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