Bottle Feeding Calves, Sheep, Goats and More

No matter the species of stock you raise, if mom is unavailable, sometimes the animal husband has to fill the void and try bottle feeding calves and other livestock.

A Bottlefed Calf Enjoying a Meal

Bottle feeding calves at the county fair, as part of a 4-H project, is commonplace throughout rural America.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/LivingImages

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Many different reasons exist to bottle raise a baby animal. Sometimes, it’s a matter of necessity, in the case of an orphaned or rejected animal. Sometimes it’s a matter of convenience or desire, such as an ox drover wanting to bond with a potential new team of calves. Someone may bring you an orphan with a sad story, and occasionally people just want the fun of raising a baby animal. No matter the motivation, it’s important to get your bottle baby off to a good start. Here are some things to help you get started in the right direction.

Rejection

Livestock breeding can have its ups and downs. The joy of watching a happy, healthy baby frolicking with its dam is always tempered by the knowledge that the next time might not go so well.

After a difficult birth, sometimes a mother may be too stressed or too weak to properly recognize and mother her baby. Many times after being given a chance to rest and relax, she may go ahead and claim and bond with her baby. If at all possible, give mom and baby a quiet place to chill out for a little while. In rare cases, the mother may be aggressive toward the baby, but fortunately this doesn’t happen very often. Staying with them out of sight so you can intervene if necessary or separating them with a panel that lets them see and smell each other might be enough to get those maternal instincts to kick in. An inexperienced mother with a full, tight udder may want to mother her baby, but be so sore there is no way she’s going to be happy with junior punching around down there. If you can safely milk her out a little to take some of the pressure off, she might be a little more accepting of the idea. But be sure you can do it safely, especially in the case of large hoofstock like cattle, which can kick with amazing accuracy and athleticism.

Save the colostrum-rich first milk, either for this baby or freeze it for future use.

At times, it isn’t obvious if baby is nursing or not. A baby that is latched on and nursing well will stay with it, and not continually be sniffing around looking for the right spot. Also, a baby will sometimes wag its tail enthusiastically when it’s in the right place and enjoying the meal.

A baby that has nursed adequately will have a plump tummy, feel warm, and not be actively seeking to nurse from anything and everything it comes across. Generally, seeing a meconium — that first, tarry looking baby manure — can indicate that the baby may have nursed, and the digestive system has kicked in. A baby that seems “ganted up” — or hollow in the flank area — might need to be checked out.

On the bottle

Is mom having no part of it for whatever reason? Time to intervene? The first and most important thing in raising a healthy baby is to make sure it gets a good supply of colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk an animal produces; it is loaded with fat, calories and a whole slew of antibodies to give the baby a strong start in life. The good news? Mom produces colostrum for the first couple of days. The bad news? Baby has only a narrow window of a few hours that its gut lining is open and able to absorb all those antibodies. The first eight hours are the optimal window. After that, the gut lining closes up and the ability to make use of the colostrum deteriorates rapidly. After 12 hours it’s less than 50 percent, and after 24 hours, the ability to absorb colostrum is lost entirely.

If the baby doesn’t get colostrum, it is at risk for severe infections, and will be compromised at throwing off the immunity challenges that will inevitably come its way. This is one reason an animal that comes your way from an outside source may be a challenge, and also a reason to be wary of purchasing babies from a sale barn or livestock auction. Unless you can talk to the previous owner, there isn’t really a good way to know if baby got colostrum or not. It’s hard to resist the challenge, especially when that calf or lamb is so cute, but just be aware of the challenges you may be facing.

If mom has no milk or there is no colostrum for whatever reason, there are several manufactured colostrum supplements, but again, your window to make use of them is narrow.

Tools of the trade

OK, you have committed to a course of action. There are several things you will need to raise your baby successfully.

One of the most important is, of course, a bottle and a species-appropriate nipple, but don’t just run down to the farm supply store and grab any old milk replacer off the shelf. Different species have different needs, and there are milk replacers formulated for calves, lambs, kids and foals. There are general milk replacers that will work for multiple species, and those are certainly adequate, but if you have the opportunity to select a milk replacer formulated for the animal you are raising, go for it.

For lambs and kids, there are nipples that can slip over an empty soda pop bottle. These plastic bottles are easily available and may help in getting an animal started since you can apply a little pressure to ensure good flow, but glass beer bottles can be more readily disinfected, and will last longer.

Larger calves will require a calf nipple and a calf bottle or pail. Often the rubber in these nipples can be stiff, and smaller or weaker calves may have a hard time getting started with them. Smaller calves can be started on a lamb nipple, but be careful that as the calf gains vigor, he doesn’t pull it off and swallow it. If the flow seems slow at first, you can widen the hole in the nipple, but make sure you don’t open it so much that the milk floods out and you risk aspirating liquid into the baby’s lungs. This can put them at high risk for pneumonia, and if you have a baby that already has its immunity compromised, you may have big problems.

Milk replacer should be warm when given to the baby. It doesn’t need to be hot, but it should at least be close to the temperature it comes out of the mother. You can warm it in the microwave, over the stove, or make it fresh with hot water each time. Cold milk replacer is not as palatable in the early stages, and they may not drink as much. Generally, after they are going good on the bottle, temperature isn’t as much of an issue, but some babies remain picky all through the bottle-feeding experience. Don’t worry, they will let you know if they have a problem with anything.

Some animals will have a distinct preference for a certain type of nipple, a certain temperature or milk replacer, and just about anything else, while others take to the bottle like a duck to water. You may have to experiment a bit with a picky animal, but eventually you will find something that works.

Getting started

At first, your bottle baby may not take to an artificial nipple and milk replacer, especially if they have nursed some from their mother. The replacement just doesn’t smell right, feel right, or taste right.

It may take a little patience while getting them started. Hold smaller babies, like lambs or kids, in your lap, facing forward. Cradle your hand under baby’s chin, and hold the bottle so it’s lined up with baby’s mouth. Guide the nipple into the mouth, but be careful not to hold it at too steep an angle so milk doesn’t flood the baby’s mouth. Let it play with the nipple a while to get the idea. Holding the bottle in line with the mouth makes it more difficult for the baby to play with the nipple and spit it out. If at first it doesn’t want to nurse, wait a couple of hours and try again. It may just not be hungry yet. A healthy baby will hardly ever let itself starve to death.

If your baby is a ruminant, the milk needs to bypass the rumen, which is undeveloped in newborns. It must go to the abomasum, or true stomach. Fortunately, Mother Nature takes care of this process for us.

When the baby holds its head in the natural nursing position, straight out and extended, and maintains the tension in its throat necessary to nurse, a fold of skin in the esophagus — known as the esophageal groove — closes, causing the milk to bypass the rumen and go straight into the abomasum. Why is this a big deal? In order to properly digest, milk must form clots, removing the water part of the fluid, and then make its way to the small intestine where it can be absorbed. The abomasum contains rennet, the digestive enzyme that helps all this take place; and helps to make great cheese. If it goes directly into the rumen instead of the abomasum, it has to clot up there, which can take up to three hours longer, and make its way back to the abomasum anyway.

The rumen is pretty much nonfunctional in the first couple weeks of life. In the ruminant baby, the abomasum is the larger of the two compartments, and the rumen is a small percentage of its mature size. You will see the baby start nibbling at forage and feed at a pretty young age, though. This helps the bacteria in the rumen start to develop, even though it doesn’t do a huge share of the workload right away.

No pushing

One of the key questions in bottle raising a baby is if you can maintain the discipline necessary to keep it from becoming a pushy problem child. A mother will correct the minor breaches in behavior with a bite, kick or head toss. A bottle baby will come to recognize you as a food source, and begin to make demands with a head butt or hoof strike. Correct these breaches with a firm tap on the nose, or a swat to the shoulder or barrel. Behavior that’s cute when a baby calf is a hundred pounds won’t be so cute when he weighs a thousand. Be firm enough to gain his respect and attention, but gentle enough not to hurt or truly make him fearful.

If it’s an option, leave baby with the rest of the herd or flock. Even if mama isn’t around, they can help teach your baby the rules of being a good citizen, and you won’t have to worry about introducing the baby to the rest of the herd or flock when it’s older. If your baby is by himself, it’s even more important that you teach it respect and handle it according to what works for that species. Llamas and alpacas, for example, are known for developing behavioral problems later in life if they aren’t properly socialized. If you have any questions about exactly what is or isn’t proper, find someone who is experienced in raising whatever species you are dealing with, and ask for advice. The result of not properly socializing a bottle baby could be an animal that you may have to get rid of because it has become dangerous to you or your family.

Despite the hard work and challenges, bottle raising any animal can be rewarding. There’s nothing like the feeling of watching an animal grow and thrive, and know you had a significant part in it. Just be sure you have the tools necessary to do it right.  

Read more: One blogger’s take on how to save an orphaned calf.


Callene Rapp has successfully bottle raised babies of many species, but whenever possible, she prefers to convince the mothers to do the work for her. Callene works as a zookeeper in the Children’s Farms of the Sedgwick County Zoo, and she and her husband, Eric, have small herds of Pineywoods cattle and Navajo-Churro sheep on their farm in Kansas.