Bottle-feeding Dairy Calves

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May is always the busiest month on the farm or so it seems. Everything starts in May. It is when we get our first order of broiler chicks to go in the brooder, buy calves, get the garden in full production mode. This year we have the added obligations of finishing our house and beginning the adventure of home dairying.

Recently we purchased two Jersey-Holstein bull calves that are still nursing. If you live in an area where there are dairies you can often get a still nursing calf at a bargain, usually for $100 or less. This is our first year raising calves on a bottle. We had been told in the past that raising calves on a bottle was expensive and a big hassle because you absolutely have to give them a bottle at least twice per day. So far we have found that these assumptions are simply not true. Yes milk replacer can cost up to $37 for a 25-pound bag in our area, but a bag goes much further than we were led to believe.

Each calf will require about 2-3 bags of milk replacer powder to get them to a weaning age of 2 months. It is also highly recommended that with commercial dairy calves that you use a good 16 percent protein calf starter (grain) as soon as they start nibbling. This should be fed free choice when calves are very young (less than a month old). After that you may need to monitor their feed intake a bit especially if you notice that one or more of your calves are prone to overeating.

Even taking in to account the expense of feed you are looking at $74-$111 for milk replacer and $100 or less for the calf. There will also be some miscellaneous expenses such as bottles and medicine or electrolytes if your calves need treatment for scours or any other illness. These expenses are usually quite minimal, and the bottles can be reused for many calves. The nipple is what will wear out first and this can be easily replaced. This adds up to some cheap beef if you have the grass to grow your calf up on. There is actually more dairy beef consumed than any other beef. This is largely due to the fast food industry which buys up dairy cows that have passed their prime.

The main problem most people have with raising calves up on a bottle is that you have to have the time to give the calf a bottle quite early in the morning and right around dinner time. If you work an outside job from 8-5 this means you would need to feed your calf before you go to work and right when you get home. This also means that you have to go directly home and feed your calf. You can be an hour or so late feeding them if you have to, but it is not a good idea to be later than that.

Another issue is that when you get a calf from a dairy farm it is usually a bull, not a steer. Luckily young bulls can be bloodlessly castrated by using a device called an elastrator, more commonly known as “banders.” This method is quick and fairly easy. The testicles will normally fall off in around a month or so. You should apply an antiseptic such as iodine or Blu-Kote (available as a convienent spray, meaning you don’t have to catch up the animal) to the scrotum in order to prevent infection as it sloughs off.

A problem that can arise when bottle raising calves is scours. This is when a calf has diarrhea. Scours can be caused by bacteria, milk replacer that is mixed too rich, or the calf eating a large amount of fresh grass or clover early in the spring. The worst type is the bacterial version. Many commercial dairies give calves an inordinate amount of antibiotics in their feed and milk replacer and sometimes injections out of fear of scours.

From our experience it seems like calves do better without the steady dose of antibiotics. Often times you cannot help but get a calf that has had some antibiotics. When we got ours home we put some vitamins and electrolytes in their water because they seemed to be a bit runny out the back end. Vitamins and electrolytes come in powder form usually and are readily available at most feed stores or Tractor Supply. They help keep a calf hydrated while it gets over the scours. I would also recommend getting unmedicated milk replacer. This can be hard to find. The only place I can get it locally is Tractor Supply.

Calves need antibiotics only if they are truly sick, not in every meal they eat. If a calf seems not to be getting any better, then you may need to give them a penicillin shot or something similar. Cows have a lot of bacteria in their stomachs, and when very young their rumen is still developing. It seems to me that if a calf is given a steady dose of antibiotics that it could possibly harm the good bacteria as well as the bad. The key is to only use them when truly needed.

Getting a dairy calf or two is a cheap way to get into oxen. Although dairy breeds are leaner than your typical beef breed ox, they can be trained to make fine oxen for a small farm.
We expect to raise 4 dairy steers this year. One of them we are making the attempt to train to become an ox. This is something we have never done before. We chose the calf out of the current two that is the most outgoing and seems to want to be around people a bit more than the other. We have named him George.

So far he seems to be easy to halter break. Part of this is because we got him at two weeks old and he has always been bottle-fed. He seems to have a good understanding of the command to move forward (“Get up George!”) and “Whoa!”

We have been working on finishing the house and have been unable to spend as much time with him as we would like. He is only about 2 months old now so there is time to train him. If you are interested in learning more about training an ox or oxen, check out Oxen: A Teamsters Guide by Drew Conroy. It is available from Storey Publishing and can also be found on It is the most informative oxen book we have found.