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Feeding Calves

Calves in calf hutches in a field.

Calves, or baby cows, have special nutritional needs. If these needs are not met, the calf can run into serious health issues either as a calf or later in life as an adult cow or bull. Make sure you are following a strict feeding schedule, especially when raising a newborn calf.

Milk Replacers

A milk replacer is the primary source of food for the first few weeks of a calf's life. Young calves cannot yet digest grains or hay as an adult cow can, so find an agglomerated milk replacer whenever possible. This will help the young calf digest an even amount of nutrition throughout meals.

It is important to balance cost-savings with quality when choosing a milk replacer for your calves. When shopping for a milk replacer, ask the following questions:

What Type of Protein Source is used in the Milk Replacer?

The most digestible types of protein are derived from milk, plasma and serum. These types of proteins will help calves grow faster and live healthier as adults. Less expensive protein ingredients derived from egg or plants are less digestible for calves but can be economical for cattle owners on a budget. Finally, the least digestible protein comes from soy flour and should never be fed to a calf less than 3 weeks old.

How Much Protein, Fat and Fiber are in the Milk Replacer?

Feed calves milk replacers that use 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat. Do not give calves less than 3 weeks old milk replacers containing more than 1 percent fiber. 0.20 percent fiber is a good amount.

Does the Milk Replacer Contain Additives?

Some milk replacers come with additives, or hormones and medications that are added to the milk replacer formula which benefits the growth and health of the calf. Approved milk replacer medications are being limited, however, due to concerns that human consumption of cattle beef causes resistance to antibiotics in humans.

It is important to note that no milk replacement additive is 100 percent effective, and sound herd management, sanitation and biosecurity practices are an important part of any calf or cattle feeding program. Common milk replacer medications include:

  • Neomycin and Oxytetracycline: used to facilitate weight gain in calves and treat scours.
  • Lasalocid: used to control coccidiosis caused by Eimeria bovis and Eimeria zuernii.
  • Decoquinate: used to prevent coccidiosis caused by Eimeria bovis and Eimeria zuernii in ruminating and non-ruminating calves and cattle.
  • MOS (mannan-oligosaccharides): a non-medicated additive used to promote intestinal health in calves by preventing bacterial scours infections and support immune health.

How to Feed Milk Replacer to a Calf

Milk replacer can be fed in two ways: through a bottle or from a pail or bucket.

Bottle Feeding Calves Milk Replacer

Very young calves are usually bottle-fed because they are too young to train. The nipple of a bottle resembles the teat of a mother cow, and the natural instinct to suckle should kick in once the calf recognizes the bottle as its food source.

Young calves need routine, so feed young calves twice a day at the same times each day. Early morning and evening are the best times for calf feeding. During cold weather, it may be necessary to add a third feeding during mid-day. Read more about winter feeding below.

Supplies you may need for bottle-feeding calves include:

  • 2 or 3 quart bottle and nipple(s)
  • 2 gallon pail(s) or bucket(s). You will need a separate pail or bucket for each calf.
  • 2 gallon bucket in which to mix milk replacer
  • Clean, hot water
  • Thermometer to measure water temperature
  • Stainless steel wire whisk
  • Bucket and bottle brushes, clean-rinsing liquid detergent, and bleach to clean and sanitize the equipment
  • Drying rack to air-dry feeding equipment

When mixing milk replacer, be precise. Always use the measuring cup that comes with the milk replacer and follow the instructions on the package to ensure you are giving the calf the proper amount. Measurements can vary depending on the brand of milk replacer.

Get the Right Temperature When Mixing a Milk Replacer

Milk replacer for calves must be mixed at a high enough temperature to allow the fats in the milk replacer to melt into liquid form so it is easily absorbed by the calf and so the mix stays consistent. But milk replacer formula cannot be too hot either. Formula that is too hot can cause proteins coating fat molecules to separate and loose nutritional value. If milk replacer formula is too hot, small white blobs will form as chunks floating around in the formula.

Always use a pail or bucket to mix milk replacer to make sure you have mixed the formula well. First, pour in only the water and use a thermometer to measure the temperature of the water. Adjust if needed before adding the milk replacer powder. Mix well using a whisk until the powder is completely dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool to 100 - 105 degrees Fahrenheit before feeding to a calf. If you have allowed solution to sit first, stir once more just before feeding. Never let milk replacer sit longer than 1 hour to prevent bacteria from growing.

Bottle Feeding Calves in Cold Weather

During the winter, calves use more energy in body temperature regulation. Very young calves (less than 3 weeks old) are especially vulnerable in the cold because they have less body fat to begin with, so keeping their weight up is vital. Calves less than 3 weeks old can begin to feel cold at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and can easily starve to death if their diet is not supplemented with more protein.

The energy requirements of calves increase so much in the winter and colder months that calves' feeding needs increase as well. Increase from 2 to 3 feedings per day if daytime temperatures are below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and the calf is not being kept inside a heated building. If you are using a medicated milk replacer, be sure to use a separate, non-medicated milk replacer for the extra feeding so you can maintain the same levels of medication and avoid over-medicating.

Feeding Calves Milk Replacer from a Bucket

Some calf owners feed milk replacer using a pail or bucket, which saves time but can require some training. Once mature enough, a calf can be trained to drink from a pail. Here's how to train a calf to drink from a bucket:

  1. Wash your hands.
  2. Set the bucket full of milk replacer on the ground right in front of the calf.
  3. Put your finger into the calf's mouth until the calf begins to suckle on your finger.
  4. As the calf is suckling, gently lower your finger down towards the bucket until the calf's mouth is in the milk.
  5. If the calf resists after repeated attempts, try using a shallower bucket that will not make the calf as nervous.
  6. Try this a few times until the calf learns to go directly to the milk. This takes patience, so keep trying consistently until the calf learns this new behavior.

How to Transition from Milk Replacer to Calf Starter Feed

Once a calf is mature enough to begin digesting grains and fiber, begin the transition from liquid to solid by providing a starter feed. Starter feeds come in textured form or pellet form. Look for a high-protein, nutritionally-balanced feed your calf will love. Visit your local Tractor Supply Co. and ask about how to find the best starter feed for your calf.

Calves younger than 2 weeks old will only consume a very small amount of water and calf starter feed. Offer a handful of calf starter feed to begin with, along with clean water in a pail or bucket, so the calf can get used to the new feed and to avoid waste. Change both the feed and the water daily so the calf will be more likely to eat and drink. Sanitize the buckets after each use to avoid bacterial growth in soiled or damp feed. Make sure calves have constant access to clean water during hot weather. Young calves are more vulnerable to extreme temperatures and weather conditions, and they can easily become dehydrated in the heat.