Tips for Successfully Raising Bottle Calves
Tips on Bottle Feeding Calves and Raising an Orphan Calf
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Heather Smith Thomas – When raising cattle, you may encounter the challenge of a young calf orphaned or rejected by mama, needing a bottle from you. If you purchase a young dairy calf, you’ll need to bottle-feed until it is old enough to thrive on solid feeds. Raising bottle calves is easy if you follow some basic guidelines.
The calf might be a twin and mama only has milk for one, or a heifer’s calf that isn’t accepted by its mother, or a calf whose mother died. Raising a bottle calf is very easy with a newborn because he’s hungry and looking for milk, but the first feeding must be colostrum. This “first milk” from the cow contains important antibodies to protect her calf from various diseases in the first weeks of life. Colostrum is also the perfect food because it has a much higher fat content than regular milk and gives the calf energy for strength and keeping warm if the weather is cold.
If a calf is rejected or having trouble nursing mama the first time, you need to milk some colostrum from the cow and feed it to the calf with a clean nipple bottle. He will need one to two quarts, depending on his size. The colostrum will give the calf enough strength and encouragement to keep trying to suckle the cow, and hopefully, the miracle of bonding will take place.
In other instances (if the cow has died or refuses to accept the baby) you’ll have to keep feeding the calf until you find a substitute mother, or simply raise him on a bottle. If there’s no way to obtain colostrum from the dam or from another cow that has recently given birth, use frozen stored colostrum (if you kept some in your freezer from last year). If you don’t have any, use a package of commercial colostrum replacer — a powdered product you mix with warm water. Be sure it’s labeled as replacer rather than colostrum supplement — to have adequate antibodies.
After the first few feedings of colostrum (during the first day of life), you can bottle-feed the calf using milk from another cow, or use milk replacer for calves. There several kinds of commercial milk replacers designed for calves. Some contain more protein and fat than others. For very young calves, choose the highest-quality replacers with high protein and fat (at least 22 percent milk-based protein and 15 to 20 percent fat) and low fiber content.
When feeding a newborn the first bottle (which must be colostrum), make sure the nipple size is appropriate. A lamb nipple works better for a newborn calf than the bigger, stiffer calf nipples. Those work better for an older calf who already knows how to suck. Make sure the hole in the nipple is not too small or the calf won’t be able to suck enough through it and will become discouraged, and not too large or milk will run too fast and choke him. Avoid getting any milk “down the wrong pipe” because if it gets into his lungs he may develop aspiration pneumonia.
Make sure the milk is warm enough. It should feel warm to your touch (since calf body temperature is 101.5, which is higher than human body temperature), but not so hot that it would burn his mouth. You also don’t want it colder than body temperature or he may not want to drink it. Hold the calf’s head up in nursing position, and make sure milk is flowing through the nipple. Usually, once he gets a taste, he’ll suck eagerly. Make sure he doesn’t pull the nipple off the bottle!
You can use a lamb nipple on a small-necked bottle, or use a commercial plastic feeding bottle with matching nipple. Make sure bottles and nipples are very clean. Wash them in hot water immediately after every use.
When calves are young, they need to be fed smaller amounts more often (every eight hours). If you are using milk replacer for calves read the label and find the daily recommended amount for the size and age of the calf, and divide it into the proper number of feedings. Always mix each feeding fresh. After the calf is a little older you can go to every 12 hours for a calf.
Since you are the food source, you become the substitute mom when raising bottle calves; the calf eagerly looks forward to dinnertime and wants to suck the bottle. More challenging is the one or two-month-old calf that’s been out with the herd all its life and suddenly loses its mom. Cows occasionally die from any number of diseases, accidents or freak things–getting on their back in a ditch, plant poisoning or bloat, killed by predators, or some other misfortune. This leaves you with an orphan that might be a little wild (not ready to accept you as a mom) but too young to go without milk.
You will probably need help to quietly corner the calf in a corral or barn stall and get your hands on him. Then back the calf into the corner, put his head between your legs so you can hold him still, and get the nipple into his mouth. If the calf is hungry he may start sucking as soon as he gets a taste of the milk, and it will become easier with each feeding. Before long he’ll come running to you instead of away from you.
If he is too scared to suck a bottle the first time, however, you may wonder how to tube feed the calf. You can use a nasogastric tube or esophageal feeder probe to get the milk into his stomach. You may have to do this more than once until he starts to realize that you are his food source and relaxes enough to suck a bottle at feeding time.
On occasion when raising bottle calves, you may be bottle-feeding several calves at once, if you are bottle-raising the calves from your dairy cows, or if you purchase day-old dairy calves. It’s not difficult to hold two bottles, but if you have very many calves in the “chow line” it helps to use bottle holders that you can simply hang on a fence or gate at feeding time.
When raising bottle calves, how long to supply milk to any young calf will depend on how soon you can teach him to eat solid food (grass, hay, grain). In a normal situation, a calf mimics mama and starts nibbling whatever she’s eating (hay, pasture grass, grain) in the first few days of life and gradually eats more. If the calf has been bottle-fed since birth and has no adult role model, you’ll have to show him how to eat by putting a little grain (or calf starter pellets) or alfalfa hay into his mouth. He may not like it at first and you’ll have to keep doing it until he starts eating some on his own. Usually, a calf should stay on milk or milk replacer until he is at least four-months-old. Don’t wean him off milk until he is eating an adequate amount of high-quality forage along with some grain pellets.
Have you had success bottle raising calves? Share your tips in the comments below.