6 Things About Bottle Feeding Calves

Reader Contribution by Candi Johns
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We are bottle feeding a calf for the first time.

And, boy is he a cutie! Norman is a Jersey-Beef cross (his mamma was a Jersey, his daddy was a beef breed). He came from a wonderful, Amish farm.

He has brought smiles, spunk and life to our homestead.

Norman is a healthy, feisty bull-calf. He got to enjoy gallons of colostrum his first week on earth thanks to his mama cow. Unfortunately, his mama didn’t make it and now we are bottle feeding him. Boy, does he love his bottles.

It is a pretty simple process.

• Feed the calf a bottle two to three times a day

• Watch for scours

• Provide pasture, water and good quality hay (ours is alfalfa)

• Have a good, free-choice, mineral program available (to learn what a good mineral program is go here)

Bottle feeding is not a big deal. If you wanted to start your own dairy or beef herd, bottle calves would be a great (inexpensive) way to do it. To buy a few mature cows can cost a small fortune. To buy a few calves is reasonable. If you buy several at once you can get them even more reasonably.

Starting with bottle calves would not only save you money, you would also have the sweetest, people-loving cows on the planet.

We started our little guy on three bottles a day. He was down to two bottles a day when he was about a month old. He’s already nibbling hay and pasture. He’ll be purely grassfed in no time.

Our bottle-baby is growing like a weed. I’ve nick-named him “Little-Baby-Schnookems-Pumpkin” and he’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Norman lives in a field with Rosie (our Jersey milk cow) and Rosie’s calf Guinevere (more on Guin here).

6 Things I’ve Learned About Bottle Feeding

1. Easy feeding schedule.
Calves only need bottles three times a day (two times when they are older), unlike my breastfed children who preferred to nurse seven to eight times a day. Bottle calves eat during the day and sleep at night. Which is also nice.

2. Use non-medicated milk replacer if possible.
Every farm store within 45 miles has medicated milk replacer. Non-medicated is a little more challenging to find.

Why would I feed a healthy calf milk-replacer that includes antibiotics? Just as they do in people, antibiotics remove good bacteria from the gut. When a healthy animal is given antibiotics it can cause imbalances and problems. It can even make a well animal sick when they are given medications they don’t need.

Non-medicated. That’s the route we are taking.

3. Fences are friends.
If you can get a gate, fence or sturdy object between you and the calf while bottle-feeding, do it. If you have ever watched a calf nurse from a mama cow you probably saw him (or her) banging their head into the udder. This is normal behavior that stimulates the udder to ‘let down’ additional milk for the hungry calf. This head-butting doesn’t hurt the mama cow.

Head-butting during bottle feeding can, however, be annoying.

Our calf (and I hear most others) don’t realize that head-butting the bottle will not make the milk come out any faster, nor will it make any more milk appear. Head-butting comes with the territory. We have found it helpful to position ourselves on the other side of a gate while feeding Norman. It limits his head-butting ability and damages.

 4. When the bottle is empty – run.
After you finish feeding the calf, run. Especially if you did not listen to tip No. 3 and are in the same field with him.

Why run?

Bottle feeding calves is adorable, exciting and fun … for about a week. Then it won’t stop raining and you still have to feed him. The calf is adorable, but feeding him is not.

Even if the world is a messy, soaking-wet swamp, the baby must eat. Slurp!

He empties his yummy bottle.

As soon as Baby-Schnookems-Pumpkin finishes his bottle he immediately starts looking for an udder. If Rosie isn’t in plain sight he turns on the person holding the bottle.

Nudging, bumping, smearing his soaking wet, milky, slobbery head all over the front and back of my jeans trying to find an udder.

Bang. Nudge. Bump. “There’s got to be one here somewhere.”

No, Norman, I don’t have an udder.

5. Bottle calves won’t turn down a free meal.
The fifth thing I’ve learned about bottle-feeding is: Even if there is another milk source available; the calf will still happily except two-three bottles a day.

Likewise, if there are three bottles being served daily, a calf will still take full advantage of other milk sources.

Let me explain …

You will not believe what happened when we put Norman in the field with Rosie and Guinevere.

Not sure who on earth Rosie and Guinevere are?

Rosie is a Jersey cow who came to live at our homestead in March. Guin is her calf, who came with her. Norman had been in a separate pasture.

When we put Norman in the field with Rosie he ran straight to Rosie’s udder and began nursing.

6. Watch out for too much food.
I’m pretty sure Norman would literally eat himself to death if we provided enough food. It’s called scours or scouring.

Calf scours is basically baby-cow diarrhea. It is dangerous and can be fatal. We are watching Norman closely, especially since we don’t know exactly how much he is eating (from Rosie).

The good news is that Rosie is not a high producer and is feeding two calves. The other good news is that Norman’s BMs are solid.

Now Rosie has two babies. One black, obnoxious, ornery punk who still won’t let me pet her. And one Little-Baby-Schnookems-Pumpkin … who may just be the cutest thing in the whole world.

To read about the black, obnoxious punk go here.

Rosie is not quite sure what to think of Norman.

Sometimes she loves him.

Sometimes she kicks him in the head.

Sounds about right ….

Don’t worry – when she kicks my new baby, I tell her to be nice. She’s coming around.

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