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In ruminants the stimulation of papillar growth by butyric acid is well described but effects on mitosis and apoptosis are not known. To clarify the effect of short chain fatty acids three groups of three calves received a basic ration of 100 g hay per day for 6 weeks and additionally milk replacer. From these, two groups were fed with increasing amounts of the salts of either propionic acid (53 to 390 g) or butyric acid up to (54 to 326 g). The control group instead received an additional isocaloric amount of milk replacer. Mitosis was characterized by Ki67 immunoreactivity, apoptosis by a modified TUNEL assay and by electron microscopy. The feeding regimes led to significant differences of papillar length, increasing from 1.0 mm (controls) to 2.2 mm (propionic acid) and 4 mm (butyric acid). This enlargement was partly explained by an increased mitotic rate for the two fatty acid groups. The difference between the fatty acid groups was mainly explained by different apoptotic rates which were only one third for butyric acid compared to propionic acid (P < 0.001). In conclusion, butyric acid is a specific inhibitor of ruminal apoptosis in vivo.