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.

| September/October 2014

  • Bottle feeding calves at the county fair, as part of a 4-H project, is commonplace throughout rural America.
    Photo by
  • It’s fairly easy to convert regular old soda bottles into milking bottles. The challenge is to maintain discipline when the babies are small so that they don’t grow up to become obnoxious adults.
    Photo by Norm Eggert Photography
  • This piglet seems content sucking from a bottle that’s being held at an angle about the same as the mouth of the animal. Bottle feeding piglets is tough work, and if you can reintroduce it to the sow in short order, all the better.
    Photo by

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.


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.

3/13/2015 12:05:08 PM

VITAL INFORMATION!!! This story still makes me want to cry. I know someone who bought 20 bucket calves and ended up with 18 dead calves from pure stupidity. They spent a fortune on vet bills trying to figure out why they were losing calves. Different feeding schedules, calf coats, lots of medication, electrolytes, and stall cleaning. Even the experienced farm vet didn't see it, nor did the Vet school at the nearby major university where they did autopsies on 3 calves. Essentially they starved to death. When you mix the milk replacer, it will tell you how many ounces to use per quart or gallon. THESE ARE OUNCES BY WEIGHT, NOT BY VOLUME! There is a HUGE difference! A 1 pound can of ground coffee is 16 oz by WEIGHT. A two cup measuring cup is 16 oz by VOLUME. It probably takes three or more of the 2 cup measuring cups to fill a coffee can with ground coffee. These people were using the measuring cup ounces and the milk was watered down by 2/3. Milk replacer should be THICK when it is fed. You will average an entire bag of milk replacer per calf before they are weaned. I saw the guilt, as well as the lost money and effort from a simple and stupid mistake. I feel sorry for the farmer, but those poor babies just break my heart.

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters