5 Tips for Better Bottle Feeding

I recently told the story of how I gave my calf CPR and the Heimlich (The Calf Heimlich).

Sadly, when I went to feed my calves the next morning I found the little heifer had died. I took a deep breath and fed the other two. When I got back to the house my father in law met me in the mud room, “How’s that little calf? Still alive?” He was just sure it was fine. I bust into tears instantly, and through a gasping, sobbing breath screamed that it was dead and it was all my fault. I’m sure he felt like a jerk, even though he meant no harm. I felt like such a failure. I had killed my calf.

My father in law assured me it wasn’t my fault. The veterinarian said that the calf dying because of bottle feeding isn’t really feasible and that there was most likely something else wrong with the calf that caused it to die. Still, I felt like it was my fault.

The traumatic experience has led to a massive amount of research and changes in how I bottle feed my calves. Here are some lessons learned and mistakes I’ll never make again.

  • Feed calves alone. If you have more than one, separate them and feed where they cannot see each other. Cattle get competitive with other cattle over food, when two are eating they will eat faster. Calves should nurse slowly.
  • Used an appropriate nipple. Although our nipples are all bought equally, through age they will change. There is a fine line between an opening that too big and too small. When I go to bottle feed a calf to the first time I take both. The small opening is good because it avoids a mess while trying to get the calf to nurse and milk only comes out when the calf sucks. But sometimes a calf won’t take to nursing and just getting a little milk in its mouth to taste it can kick start the nursing reflex. In these cases I use the larger opening nipple to get some milk in the calf’s mouth, and then switch to the small one so it won’t choke on a mouthful of milk. When the calf is nursing well I will always use the small nipple. This leads to the calf taking more time to suck down a bottle, but it is the safer, more natural way for a calf to nurse.
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  • Feed more times a day. I have a belief that it is impossible to fill up an established bottle calf. We used to bottle feed twice a day, morning and evening. The calf would get hungry between times and thus would nurse faster. Splitting up feedings to 3 or 4 times a day if possible is better because the calf will stay full longer. I have also heard this prevents the “pot bellied” look bottle calves get.
  • Make sure your milk is well mixed and not too hot. All milk replacers are not created equal. Some mix up better than others. If there are chunks of milk in the bottle it makes it hard on the calf. It can also plug the nipple while the calf is trying to nurse. Sometimes I can’t get all the bits mixed in, but they float to the top, where I pick them out. Most likely, a calf will drink a bottle no matter what the temperature. If the milk is too hot, it can burn the calf’s throat. The milk should be warm to touch. Ranchwife life hack: a wire blender ball (like those used in protein shake bottles) can be twisted into the calf bottle and used to shake up milk powder in the bottle, mine was a little big but with some work fit through the opening and I just leave it inside the bottle while feeding and washing.
  • It you have multiple bottle calves, keep them in separate pens. One would think they enjoy being together, and they do, but when you leave after feeding they will suck on each other’s ears, tails, umbilical cords, anything they can get. This can lead to problems. I usually take them out to run and play where they can spend time together.
  • I feel like my calf had problems nursing because it was competitive with the other two calves, and the nipple opening was too large. Even if it died because of other causes, these were the issues that should be learned from. Another note is that if milk gets into a calf’s lungs, it can lead to pneumonia down the road.

    John Moran wrote the book on raising bottle calves (literally). His book is called Calf Rearing, A Practical Guide and can be purchased online as a Google E-Book. It is full of great information about bottle feeding.


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